NASA Mulls A New Deep-Space Rocket Test Despite Technical Concerns -- Update
By Andy Pasztor
NASA is wrestling with the decision whether to redo ground
checks of a mammoth deep-space rocket's main engines, which
prematurely shut off during an aborted test Saturday.
NASA officials on Tuesday said preliminary findings indicated
that sensors flagged problems with two out of four main engines of
the Space Launch System booster built by Boeing Co. But in a
briefing for reporters, they clarified earlier updates by revealing
that the testing setback resulted from the combination of a
malfunctioning sensor and how Saturday's test was set up rather
than design or production defects with the engines themselves.
Outgoing National Aeronautics and Space Administration chief Jim
Bridenstine and some top aides emphasized that on top of probable
schedule delays, extra testing could stress parts of the 212-foot
rocket to the point that performing its mission could be
The agency didn't give a timeline for a decision, though some of
its internal safety guidelines suggest that typically a new test
would be necessary to demonstrate reliability of the booster's
primary propulsion system.
The looming trade-offs over testing present engineering and
political challenges for NASA as well as Boeing, even as new
appointees in a Biden administration are expected to reassess the
status of the troubled multibillion-dollar SLS program.
Responding to questions about the automated shutdowns that
occurred about a minute into what was supposed to be an
eight-minute test on Saturday, Mr. Bridenstine and other agency
leaders placed the blame on test parameters that were intentionally
conservative to protect the booster section. When a sensor recorded
excessive stress on the hydraulic system that adjusts the engines,
a cascade of protective computer messages followed, almost
instantly shutting them all down.
John Shannon, Boeing's SLS program manager, told reporters
"there is a judgment call" in seeking to extract maximum data under
such test situations while also "making sure that the hardware
stays in good shape" for its ultimate flight.
There was an unrelated problem much earlier in the test. A
different sensor monitoring another engine indicated a major
component failure. NASA said Tuesday that based on preliminary
data, there was no such failure and the sensor provided incorrect
information to onboard computers. During an actual blastoff count,
according to the agency, the malfunctioning sensor likely would
have caused an abort of the launch.
Retesting the engines could further delay a program that is
already years behind schedule and, by some measures, about 30% over
budget. Last weekend's test in Mississippi was earlier delayed for
technical reasons and then by the pandemic. Now, NASA officials
must decide whether to ship the booster to the launch site in
Florida without getting all the test data they initially indicated
would be necessary to determine the reliability of its propulsion
system. 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 delay.
NASA's latest statements, however, provide some relatively good
news for backers of the SLS booster, which agency and congressional
investigators have said experienced persistent management problems
and significant technical setbacks. NASA said the engines weren't
damaged during the test, while other details indicate the shutdown
didn't point to a fundamental design problem with the engines, fuel
system or supporting structures.
SLS is more powerful than the Saturn V that blasted Apollo
astronauts toward the moon in the late 1960s and early 1970s and
was slated for its first uncrewed launch late this year, but that
schedule is now in flux.
"The fact that we learned and are learning" from the data
collected on Saturday "means this was a great test," according to
Kathy Lueders, head of NASA's human exploration programs. "We have
a shot at flying this year," she said, though none of the NASA or
industry experts at the press conference vouched for that
Political and budget pressures on the program -- projected to
cost a total of between $19 billion and $23 billion -- were already
increasing. The system has been under development for more than a
decade without yet getting airborne. 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 the program is expected to face
stepped-up congressional scrutiny and escalating competition from
rival space-transportation companies.
Companies headed by billionaires Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos are
separately working on smaller rockets that potentially could be
tapped by NASA to participate in early lunar missions.
Write to Andy Pasztor at firstname.lastname@example.org
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
January 19, 2021 22:27 ET (03:27 GMT)
Copyright (c) 2021 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.