NASA’s SLS rocket faces new delay


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NASA’s massive Space Launch System rocket that is intended to return astronauts to the moon rolled out of its assembly building to great fanfare in March, making its way, for the first time, to its launchpad. Fans packed into the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, cheering it on, as if at a football game. A college band played the national anthem.

“Ladies and gentlemen, the world’s most powerful rocket ever. And it’s back to the moon and on to Mars,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson announced.

Instead, NASA had to move the rocket back to its assembly building after problems prevented the space agency from completing a major prelaunch rehearsal.

Now NASA is preparing for another attempt at the fueling test, saying it has replaced a malfunctioning valve in the rocket’s second stage and has figured out what was causing a leak in one of its fuel lines. Soon it will again roll the rocket out of the Vehicle Assembly Building, or VAB, to the pad for another attempt at what NASA calls the “Wet Dress Rehearsal” — loading more than 700,000 gallons of propellant and running a simulated countdown. Successful completion of the rehearsal is required before the agency will attempt the Space Launch System’s first launch.


Space Launch System

Block 1 rocket

Total height:

322 feet

Mobile launcher/

umbilical tower

Total height:

364 feet

Launch-abort

escape rocket

Orion

spacecraft,

service

module

Interim

cryogenic

propulsion

upper

stage

Brackets,

umbilicals to brace and fuel

the rocket

WILLIAM NEFF/THE WASHINGTON POST

Space Launch System

Block 1 rocket

Total height:

322 feet

Mobile launcher/

umbilical tower

Total height:

364 feet

Launch-abort

escape rocket

Orion

spacecraft,

service module

Interim cryogenic

propulsion upper

stage

Brackets and umbilicals to brace and fuel the rocket

WILLIAM NEFF/THE WASHINGTON POST

Mobile

launcher

Total height:

364 feet

Space Launch System

Block 1 rocket

Total height:

322 feet

Launch-abort

escape rocket

Orion spacecraft,

service module

Brackets and umbilicals to brace and fuel the rocket

Interim

cryogenic

propulsion

upper

stage

WILLIAM NEFF/THE WASHINGTON POST

Mobile

launcher

Total height:

364 feet

Space Launch System

Block 1 rocket

Total height:

322 feet

Launch-abort

escape rocket

Orion spacecraft,

service module

Brackets and umbilicals to brace and fuel the rocket

Interim

cryogenic

propulsion

upper

stage

WILLIAM NEFF/THE WASHINGTON POST

Jim Free, a NASA associate administrator, told reporters Thursday that the agency hopes to return the SLS to the pad in the coming weeks. If that goes well, the agency could launch the rocket as early as August. But he added that NASA would not announce a launch date until the fueling test has been completed. Other dates later in the year are also being contemplated, he said.

“Rolling back to the VAB was absolutely the right thing to do to really work through several issues that we found at the pad,” Free said. “We also want to be realistic and upfront with you that it may take more than one attempt to get the procedures where we have a smooth launch count that gives us the best chance to make our launch windows.”

The SLS rocket is the backbone of NASA’s Artemis program, the plan to return astronauts to the moon for the first time since Apollo 17 in 1972. At 322 feet and taller than the Statue of Liberty, it is a beast of a rocket that would propel the Orion crew capsule to the moon. The first mission, known as Artemis I, calls for sending Orion into lunar orbit without any astronauts. The second mission, tentatively scheduled for 2024, would repeat that mission but have NASA astronauts in the capsule. Then, the landing.

For now, NASA maintains that could still happen by 2025. But given the long history of setbacks and delays — including during the fueling tests — many think that will be pushed back as well.

Sometimes ridiculed as the “Senate Launch System” because it provides jobs in key congressional districts, the rocket is billions of dollars overbudget and years behind schedule.

This week, Nelson took aim at the agency’s reliance on such programs and the type of contracts, known as “cost-plus,” that keep money flowing to contractors even as they exceed the budget.

He said the agency should rely more on competition between vendors, saying “you get it done cheaper, and that allows us to move away from what has been a plague on us in the past, which is a cost-plus contract.”

NASA, however, remains committed to the SLS and Orion program, despite its setbacks. But it soon may have competition. Elon Musk’s SpaceX is developing a rocket, known as Starship, that would be taller and even more powerful than the SLS. SpaceX is awaiting Federal Aviation Administration approval to conduct its first orbital launch, but that permission had been delayed by an environmental review.

Given the size and complexity of the SLS, NASA has said it expected to run into problems — which is why the agency conducts the tests in the first place. Engineers have learned a lot about how the hardware operates.

“The mega moon rocket’s still doing very well. We have one check valve — that is literally the only real issue we’ve seen so far,” said Tom Whitmeyer, deputy associate administrator for NASA’s exploration systems development division. “We’re very proud of the rocket. We think it’s a great rocket. … I think we’re really getting smarter with this rocket. But we’ve got a little bit more work in front of us.”



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