WASHINGTON (Reuters) – For the first time on Saturday, NASA’s deep space exploration rocket designed by Boeing briefly ignited all four engines of its behemoth core stage, cutting short a vital test to advance a years-long U.S. government program to return humans to the moon in the next few years.
Placed at NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Mississippi in a test facility, the 212-foot tall core stage of the Space Launch System (SLS) roared to life at 4:27 p.m. Local time (2227 GMT) for just over a minute, well short of the approximately four minutes required by engineers to remain on schedule for the first launch of the rocket in November this year.
“Today was a good day,” NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said at a press conference after the test, adding “we got lots of data that we’re going to be able to sort through” to determine if a do-over is needed and whether a November 2021 debut launch date is still possible.
For the space agency and its top SLS contractor Boeing, the engine test, the final leg of NASA’s nearly year-long “Green Run” test campaign, was a critical move before a debut unmanned launch later this year under NASA’s Artemis initiative, the Trump administration’s push to return U.S. astronauts to the moon by 2024.
It was uncertain if the test would need to be replicated by Boeing and NASA, a possibility that could push the debut launch to 2022. Cautioning that the data analysis from the test is continuing, NASA SLS program manager John Honeycutt told reporters the processing period for another hot fire test could be approximately one month.
The rocket’s four Aerojet Rocketdyne RS-25 engines ignited for approximately one minute and 15 seconds to simulate internal conditions of a real liftoff, producing 1.6 million pounds of thrust and consuming 700,000 gallons of propellants on NASA’s largest test stand, a huge facility towering 35 floors high.
Three years behind schedule and nearly $3 billion over budget is the expendable super heavy-lift SLS. For a long time, critics have called for NASA to remove the key technologies of the rocket shuttle era, which have launch costs of $1 billion or more per flight, in favor of new commercial alternatives offering lower costs.