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NASA might not repeat test of moon rocket to preserve it for launch later this year

Core stage can only ‘tank’ 9 times in its lifespan, outgoing NASA administrator says

The core stage for the first flight of NASA’s Space Launch System rocket is seen in the B-2 Test Stand during a hot fire test Jan. 16, 2021, at NASA’s Stennis Space Center near Bay St. Louis, Mississippi. Credits: NASA Television (NASA 2021)

ORLANDO, Fla. – There is no timeline when, or if, NASA repeats a hot fire test of its mega rocket designed to return humans to the moon but agency leaders say they are still targeting later this year for its first launch from Kennedy Space Center.

During a call with reporters Tuesday, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine and the head of human spaceflight Kathy Lueders remained positive the agency’s goal of sending humans back to the moon by 2024 and the first SLS test launch known as Artemis-1 could happen within the current timeline.

“Is it still within the realm of possibility to launch in 2021? The answer to that question is definitively yes, it’s still within the realm of possibility,” Bridenstine said when asked about the looming timeline for the Artemis-1 flight.

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The Space Launch System core stage was slated to fire its engines on the test stand at NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Mississippi Saturday for eight minutes but barely fired for one minute. NASA attributed the automatic shutdown to the strict test limits meant to protect the core stage so it can be used on the first Artemis flight. The hydraulic system for one engine exceeded safety parameters, NASA officials said, and flight computers shut everything down 67 seconds into the ignition.

“We’ve learned from the data that the shutdown did occur as a result of a couple of the test parameters that we had set on the hydraulic system that’s powered stage auxiliary power units,” said John Honeycutt, SLS program manager. “Those limits, and what we’ve done with this test program, in order to protect applied hardware is intentionally being a little conservative with our test parameters and allow ourselves some margin.”

Honeycutt reiterated that the core stage is not just for testing but intended to launch and for that, engineers want to preserve the hardware.

“It’s what I call the golden egg and we only have one at this point, and we have to do a test on it but it’s going to be flight hardware and we gotta keep it safe,” Honeycutt said.

The SLS rocket currently undergoing testing will launch the Orion spacecraft, sans crew, around the moon on its first test flight before launching astronauts to the lunar surface.

Had it been launch day at KSC, Bridenstine said the parameter wouldn’t have been set so conservatively and the rocket engines would have continued to fire.

There is a limitation to how many times the core stage can “tank,” when it is filled with liquid hydrogen and oxygen, which could also factor into whether NASA repeats the long-duration hot fire.

“We can load it a total of nine times with liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen,” Bridenstine said, adding every time the team runs a wet dress rehearsal, which has happened a couple of times already, it takes one of those nine lives away from the rocket hardware.

Another wet dress rehearsal will have to occur in Florida ahead of launch. At this rate, the 212-foot core stage made by Boeing is down to about six “tanks” on its lifespan.

After the test, the core stage was set to be sent down to Kennedy Space Center where it will finish being assembled and liftoff from launchpad 39B. The halted test has delayed that trip but it’s unclear for how long.

“We will continue to learn through the data and we’ll use that learning to determine what our next steps will be,” Lueders said.

Bridenstine is in his last week leading NASA. He plans to return home to his family in Oklahoma and said he is most excited to attend his children’s soccer games in person.

President-elect Joe Biden has yet to name who will lead the space agency through a critical time in the ambitious timeline to return to the lunar surface. President Donald Trump challenged the agency to fast-track the lunar program by four years putting boots on the moon in 2024 instead of 2028.

The 45-year-old former Republican congressman from Oklahoma has led the agency through the first return to astronaut launches from U.S. soil since 2011 and awarding billions of dollars in commercial contracts to further the agency’s moon program with the help of private companies and international partners.

“There’s no doubt that being the NASA administrator is unlike any other job on the planet. And whatever I do next, it’s going to be very difficult to match this experience for anything I do for the rest of my life,” Bridenstine said.

The outgoing administrator did have some advice for whoever next leads the U.S. space agency, urging the next agency head to keep politics out of space exploration.

“It should never be partisan, it should always be uniting, it should bring people together for science and discovery and exploration,” Bridenstine said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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