NASA's Delayed Deep-Space Rocket Suffers Test Failure on the Ground
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
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
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
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
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
Write to Andy Pasztor at email@example.com and Andrew Tangel
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
January 17, 2021 01:25 ET (06:25 GMT)
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