NASA Mulling Whether to Redo Ground Test of Deep-Space Rocket
By Andy Pasztor
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration has determined
that sensors flagged problems with two out of four main engines of
a mammoth deep-space rocket during a key ground test that ended
prematurely over the weekend.
But a spokeswoman for NASA on Tuesday said preliminary findings
indicated the cause of the difficulties likely stemmed from how the
test was set up for the Space Launch System booster designed by
Boeing Co., rather than malfunctions or defects with the engines
Responding to questions about the cause of Saturday's premature
engine shutdowns--which occurred about a minute into what was
supposed to be an eight-minute test--agency spokeswoman Kathryn
Hambleton said all of the engines performed as expected before the
abrupt automated shutoff.
One engine stopped operating and then prompted the rest also to
shut down earlier than planned, according to a separate update
posted on NASA's website Tuesday, due to "test parameters that were
intentionally conservative to ensure the safety" of the booster
section that was being assessed.
Much earlier in the test, different sensors checking a second
engine indicated a "major component failure." On Tuesday, NASA
clarified that the warning stemmed from a communication issue with
instrumentation intended to monitor that engine's performance,
according to NASA's summary based on preliminary findings.
"Data analysis is continuing to help the team determine if a
second" test firing of the engines is required, according to the
summary posted on NASA's website.
Ms. Hambleton said "we do not have a firm timeline for when we
will know if we will redo the test."
Retesting the engines could further delay the multi-billion
dollar program that is already years behind schedule and by some
measures, is about 30% over budget. NASA officials have said
preparing for a retest would take at least a month. Industry
officials watching the program have said they anticipate a longer
NASA's latest statements, however, provide some relatively good
news for backers of the SLS booster, which agency and Congressional
investigators previously said experienced persistent management
problems and significant technical setbacks. Ms. Hambleton
indicated the engines weren't damaged during the test, while other
details suggest the test didn't point to a fundamental design
problem with the engines, fuel system or supporting structures.
Boeing is the prime contractor for the 212-foot tall rocket,
which is more powerful than the Saturn V that blasted Apollo
astronauts toward the moon in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It
was slated for its first uncrewed launch late this year, but that
schedule is now in flux.
Political and budget pressures on the program, projected to cost
a total of between $19 billion and $23 billion to complete, were
already increasing. Under development for more than a decade
without getting airborne so far, each launch is projected to cost
in excess of $1 billion, according to agency officials and NASA's
inspector general's office.
SLS boosters are intended to carry astronauts inside the Orion
capsule, built by a team headed by Lockheed Martin Corp., to the
moon and eventually to Mars. But with new appointees set to take
over NASA under a Biden administration, SLS is widely expected to
face stepped-up Congressional scrutiny and escalating competition
from rival space-transportation companies.
Commercially-developed smaller rockets separately championed by
companies headed by Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, the founder of
Amazon.com Inc., potentially could be tapped by NASA to participate
in early lunar missions.
Write to Andy Pasztor at email@example.com
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
January 19, 2021 15:05 ET (20:05 GMT)
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