December 5, 2023

STENNIS SPACE CENTER, miss. – On Thursday, NASA’s new large rocket, the Space Launch System, ignited four powerful engines for about eight minutes and went nowhere.

That was good news for America’s goal of sending astronauts to the moon in the years to come. Despite a budget that has grown by billions of dollars and a schedule that is years too late, NASA can now take the vehicle to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida and prepare it for an actual launch around the moon with no astronauts on board.

The Space Launch System was conceived at a time when new commercial rocket companies like Elon Musk’s SpaceX were emerging. These companies have changed the way NASA sends cargo, astronauts, and robotic explorers into orbit and beyond. The rocket tested on Thursday has more to do with the traditional era of American space travel half a century ago when NASA celebrated its greatest triumph: the Apollo moon landings.

But the traditional way of exploring space is expensive.

Each launch of the Space Launch System costs up to $ 2 billion, and the rocket can only be deployed once. Yet Congress has so far provided unwavering financial support for it.

Supporters claim it is important for the government to own and operate its own powerful space rocket, and parts of the system are being built by companies across the country, spreading the economic benefits to many states and congressional districts.

When NASA announced its plans for the Space Launch System in 2011, the first launch was scheduled for 2017. As is typical of new missile designs, the development encountered technical difficulties, such as the need to develop methods of welding metal parts together, large as those in the missile. NASA suspended work on the rocket for some time in the early stages of the coronavirus outbreak last year.

As the first launch date slipped several times, the price went up. NASA has so far spent more than $ 10 billion on the rocket and more than $ 16 billion on the Orion capsule that the astronauts will sit in.

In a 2018 audit, NASA’s inspector general blamed the poor performance of Boeing, the prime contractor for building the booster phase, for much of the delay. Another 2020 report from the Inspector General said NASA “continues to struggle to manage the cost and schedule of the SLS program.”

But the Biden government seems to be on its way. The Verge and The Washington Post reported that former Florida Senator Bill Nelson, who was instrumental in pushing NASA to develop the space launch system, should be nominated as the agency’s next administrator.

Thursday’s test, dubbed hot fire, was a crucial step for the missile. It was carried out in the remote Stennis Space Center near Bay St. Louis, Miss., On a giant booth nearly double the height of Disney World’s Cinderella Castle. At this point, NASA tested the Saturn 5 rocket used for Apollo and a prototype of the space shuttle.

On the day of the test, the sky was so blue that it had apparently never known a cloud. The only sounds around were gusts of wind rustling the tree line and the murmuring of nervous onlookers. Then the world seemed to explode. However, from the safety of the viewing area for visitors, there was no countdown to be heard and there was no smooth construction of the engines. The missile was turned off and then turned on at 4:40 p.m. east coast time, and when it was turned on it was instantly deafening.

For 499.6 seconds, the four booster-stage motors were put through their paces as to what they would do during an actual launch into orbit – all while held firmly to earth. The blazing heat of the engines was converted into steam that drifted into the sky as more than 100 water jets strategically mounted on the dyno cooled the missiles’ exhaust.

“The reason we are testing on-site in such an environment is because we want to control and closely monitor the system and make sure we can shut down the system if there is any problem,” said Steve Jurczyk, NASA agent administrator.

NASA attempted to complete this test in January. But when a device didn’t work quite as expected, the rocket’s computer shut down the engines in just a minute or so. To get more data on the performance of the stage and motors, the engineers fixed the issues and tried again.

The engineers will now review the results. If all goes well, the core stage will be packaged and shipped to the Kennedy Space Center by barge. There it and other rocket parts, including two strap-on rocket boosters, a second stage, and the Orion crew capsule, are put together.

“This test is the final test of all flight hardware,” said Jurczyk. “It just has to be integrated – there are tests that come with the integration – and then it gets started.”

That launch will be the Artemis 1 mission. (In Greek mythology, Artemis is Apollo’s sister, and NASA officials have repeatedly said that one of the next astronauts to step on the moon will be a woman.)

There will be no astronauts on board for this flight. The launch will carry the Orion module and a large number of small CubeSats on a course to the moon. The capsule orbits the moon several times, similar to NASA’s Apollo 8 mission, before returning to Earth and splashing into a water landing.

The success of this mission could create the conditions for the first astronaut flight in Orion and eventually lead to a moon landing.

Jurczyk praised the NASA engineers and contractors who worked on the project, especially after their efforts were interrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic last year.

“I’m really proud of the team,” he said. “They really stuck to it and got to this point. They really worked together and supported each other and protected each other as they moved things forward.”

The Space Launch System is not the only large American rocket under development and about to make its first space travel.

Most intriguing is the gigantic Starship rocket being developed by Mr. Musk’s SpaceX. If mounted on a giant booster stage it would dwarf the Space Launch System but would be completely reusable like a passenger jet. It was designed to take people to Mars, and SpaceX has also received an adaptation contract to bring NASA astronauts to the surface of the moon.

Mr. Musk’s engineers conducted atmospheric test flights on Starship prototypes at a location in South Texas on the Gulf Coast, some of which resulted in spectacular explosions after the missiles performed impressive flight maneuvers. During the final test earlier this month, the prototype missile landed in one piece, but exploded minutes later.

The company appears to be preparing for its next test flight in the coming days or weeks.

The United Launch Alliance, a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin, may launch its Vulcan Centaur rocket in the fourth quarter of the year. The Vulcan Centaur is the successor to Atlas V, a longtime workhorse for launching military and NASA satellites.

However, this missile uses Russia-built RD-180 engines and Congress, unable to rely on technology from a country often viewed as an adversary, has banned the import of RD-180 after 2022.

Blue Origin, the rocket company founded by Jeff Bezos, the billionaire founder of Amazon, has also developed a reusable rocket called the New Glenn that would compete with both Vulcan Centaur and SpaceX Falcon 9 rockets. (Blue Origin also makes money every Vulcan Centaur launch; this booster uses Blue Origin BE-4 engines.)

However, Blue Origin has announced that the maiden flight from New Glenn will not take place before the end of next year at the earliest, two years later than originally planned.