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NASA cuts short ground test of its giant moon rocket


The test is a vital step in NASA’s Artemis programme to put the first woman and the next man on the Moon in 2024.

NASA ignited all four engines of a deep space exploration rocket – the Space Launch System (SLS) – for the first time on Saturday, but the “hot fire” test ended much earlier than expected.

Mounted in a test facility at NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Mississippi, the SLS’s 212-foot (65-metre) tall core stage roared to life at 4:27pm local time (22:27 GMT) for just more than a minute – well short of the roughly four minutes engineers needed to stay on track for the mega rocket’s first launch in November this year.

During the live broadcast of the test, NASA did not explain the reason for the early shutdown, but Wayne Hale, a former manager of NASA’s space shuttle programme, suggested a “major component failure”.

The fiery show, the last leg of NASA’s nearly year-long “Green Run” test campaign, was a vital step for the space agency and its top SLS contractor, Boeing, before the rocket’s debut launch in November.

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The success of that unmanned mission, called “Artemis 1”, will set the stage for the first landing on the Moon by humans since the Apollo 17 mission in 1972. US President Donald Trump has pushed for that trip – which will also see the first woman on the Moon – to happen by 2024.

It was unclear whether Boeing and NASA would have to repeat Saturday’s test, a prospect that could push the debut launch into 2022.

NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine, speaking at a news conference after the test, said the agency “got lots of data that we’re going to be able to sort through” to determine if a do-over is needed.

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NASA’s SLS program manager John Honeycutt cautioned the data review from the test is continuing and told reporters the turnaround time for another hot fire test could be roughly one month.

The expendable super heavy-lift SLS is three years behind schedule and nearly $3bn over budget.

Critics have long argued for NASA to retire the rocket’s shuttle-era core technologies, which have launch costs of $1bn or more per mission, in favour of newer commercial alternatives that promise lower costs.

By comparison, it costs as little as $90m to fly the massive, but less powerful, Falcon Heavy rocket designed and manufactured by Elon Musk’s SpaceX, and some $350m per launch for United Launch Alliance’s legacy Delta IV Heavy.

While newer, more reusable rockets from both companies – SpaceX’s Starship and United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan – promise heavier lift capacity than the Falcon Heavy or Delta IV Heavy, potentially at a lower cost, SLS backers have argued it would take two or more launches on those rockets to launch what the SLS could carry in a single mission.

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Reuters reported in October that President-elect Joe Biden’s space advisers aimed to delay Trump’s 2024 goal, casting fresh doubts on the long-term fate of SLS just as SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin scramble to bring rival new heavy-lift capacity to market.

NASA and Boeing engineers have stayed on a 10-month schedule for the Green Run “despite having significant adversity this year,” Boeing’s SLS manager John Shannon told reporters this week, citing five tropical storms and a hurricane that hit Stennis, as well as a three-month closure after some engineers tested positive for the coronavirus in March.

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