By Andy Pasztor and Andrew Tangel 

NASA and Boeing Co. suffered a potentially major setback in their deep-space ambitions when the engines for a giant new rocket shut down prematurely Saturday during a key test on the ground.

The engines were supposed to produce power for eight minutes but shut down after about 60 seconds while fastened to a stand at the Stennis Space Center in Mississippi. Program officials had said four minutes would be the minimum time to gain confidence in the reliability of the engines, fuel system and surrounding structures.

National Aeronautics and Space Administration officials said they couldn't immediately determine the cause of the premature shutdown, and therefore it was too early to determine what fixes would be necessary or even if the test needed to be repeated. They said engineers didn't know whether it was a hardware, software or sensor malfunction.

The mammoth Space Launch System booster, more powerful than the Saturn V that blasted Apollo astronauts toward the moon in the late 1960s and early 1970s, was slated for its first uncrewed launch late this year, but that schedule is now in flux. Political and budget pressures on the program were already increasing.

Outgoing NASA chief James Bridenstine repeatedly said in a press conference that the test shouldn't be considered a failure, because engineers and program managers gained important data. But he also said, "It's not everything we hoped it would be."

"Not everything went according to script," he said. A Boeing spokesman declined to comment.

The setback comes at a difficult time for SLS and Boeing. Industry and government officials expect the incoming Biden administration to shelve President Trump's vision of landing astronauts on the moon as early as 2024. For many years, influential Senate Republicans have championed SLS--and annually appropriated robust funding for it--despite its troubled development. But with the Senate now controlled by Democrats, those supporters stand to lose significant clout.

Even before Saturday's failed test, former NASA officials and outside space experts said they expected that for early lunar missions SLS--intended to become NASA's premier deep-space rocket--might take a back seat to rockets under development by Space Exploration Technologies Corp., run by Tesla Inc. Chief Executive Elon Musk, and Blue Origin Federation LLC, run by Amazon.com Inc. Chief Executive Jeff Bezos.

Months before the test, according to industry officials, leaders of Aerojet Rocketdyne Holdings Inc., which manufactures the SLS rocket's RS-25 engines, expressed growing concerns the entire SLS program could be curtailed or significantly delayed. These officials said the company leaders were telling supporters on Capitol Hill they worried NASA was considering such commercially developed alternatives to support the initial lunar missions.

Congress originally called for the SLS rocket and a companion deep-space capsule, known as Orion, to take flight by the end of 2016. Later, NASA's target date for a 2018 uncrewed launch slipped to 2019, and then, partly due to the Covid-19 pandemic, to the end of 2021.

A series of reports by government watchdogs have highlighted scheduling delays and safety issues, while noting that program managers burned through budget reserves and took testing shortcuts to make up time.

Backers of the SLS program have sought to maintain public support for it. With development slow and the first flight expected to lack the fanfare and publicity associated with carrying a crew, proponents viewed Saturday's test as a way to generate momentum.

Boeing's space program has suffered a series of setbacks in recent years. In December 2019, software errors botched the launch of its Starliner space capsule, highlighting recent engineering lapses across the company, which also makes commercial jets and military aircraft.

Write to Andy Pasztor at andy.pasztor@wsj.com and Andrew Tangel at Andrew.Tangel@wsj.com

 

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

January 17, 2021 01:25 ET (06:25 GMT)

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