Jan 19, 2021 - Science

NASA is trying to figure out what comes next for its huge Moon rocket

SLS engines fire during a test

Photo: NASA TV

The first flight planned for NASA's Space Launch System rocket hangs in the balance as the space agency reckons with a major test that didn't go as planned this weekend.

Why it matters: The billions of dollars over-budget SLS is key to NASA's plans to send people to the surface of the Moon by 2024 and for the agency's deep space exploration goals for years to come.

Catch up quick: The Saturday test — expected to be the last major milestone ahead of its first space flight planned for November — was designed to have all four engines of the rocket's core stage fire for eight minutes on the ground.

  • But the engines only fired for about 60 seconds before the test automatically aborted.
  • According to an update from NASA, the abort occurred due to conservatively set testing parameters, but all of the hardware, including the SLS engines and stage appear to be in good shape.
  • NASA hasn't yet decided whether it will need to rerun the test with its contractors — which include Boeing and Aerojet Rocketdyne — before shipping the rocket from Mississippi to Florida.
"We don't know what we don't know," NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said during a press conference after the test. "It's not everything we hoped it would be."

What's next: NASA isn't yet ruling out the idea of launching the SLS later this year.

  • "We are still shooting for a launch this year," NASA's head of human spaceflight Kathy Lueders said during a press conference Tuesday.
  • Even if the test had gone perfectly, the already delayed rocket was still working with little margin in its schedule.
  • Earlier this week, Lockheed Martin announced the Orion capsule it is building for the first SLS mission has been transferred to NASA ahead of flight.
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