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NASA demonstrates why rocket science is still hard with the SLS test

NASA demonstrates why rocket science is still hard with the SLS test
© Getty Images

The Space Launch System’s (SLS) development by NASA and a number of aerospace contractors proves that rocket science, which is really engineering to build spacecraft, is a term that describes something that is truly difficult for a reason.

On Jan. 16, NASA performed the last test of the so-called green run series on the core stage of the SLS. During the test, all four main engines were to be fired for eight minutes. Unfortunately, the software commanded that the test be shut down after about one minute because of major component failure (MCF) in one of the engines.

Later, NASA announced that the premature shutdown was caused by “conservative” test parameters and that the core stage was in “good condition.” If the fault had been experienced during an actual launch, the SLS would have continued to fly.

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The bigger problem is that the SLS has cost $17 billion, has taken 10 years to build and is still problem-prone. NASA and everyone else who builds rockets tests them on the ground so that accidents don’t happen in flight. However, the SLS has proven at every turn how rocket science is hard, especially when the original design, using legacy space shuttle technology, was mandated by Congress.

As of this writing, NASA and contractor engineers are poring over the data from the test and are trying to decide whether a second hot fire test should be made before the SLS core is shipped to the Kennedy Space Center for final assembly and eventual launch. Eric Berger at Ars Technica suggests that a second hot fire is almost certain to occur. If the second test occurs, the planned November 2021 will slip at least a month.

The problematic test and the decisions that must be made as a result come at a time of change in administrations and NASA administrators. Joe BidenJoe BidenBiden offers support to union organizing efforts Senate Democrats nix 'Plan B' on minimum wage hike Kavanaugh dismays conservatives by dodging pro-Trump election lawsuits MORE is now president of the United States. Jim BridenstineJames (Jim) Frederick BridenstineThe Biden administration endorses NASA's Artemis, the Space Force Will Biden continue NASA's Artemis program to return to the moon? NASA demonstrates why rocket science is still hard with the SLS test MORE is no longer NASA administrator. As promised, Bridenstine has resigned from his position.

Steve Jurczyk, formerly NASA’s associate administrator, the space agency’s highest-ranking civil servant, is now the acting administrator, pending the appointment of a permanent administrator by the Biden administration and confirmation by the Senate. Kathy Lueders remains associate administrator for Human Exploration and Operations. Presumably, they would make the ultimate decision as to whether a second test should be conducted.

The larger question is whether or not the Biden administration will continue the Artemis program to return to the moon and go on to Mars. The new White House has not offered a hint as to its future space policy plans.

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On the minus side, many remember how a year into his presidency, Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaCPAC, all-in for Trump, is not what it used to be Americans have decided to give professionals a chance Artist behind golden Trump statue at CPAC says he made it in Mexico MORE took a hammer to the Bush-era Constellation program and set back human deep space exploration by at least a decade. Biden may pull the same move, some fear.

On the plus side, the 2020 Democratic Party platform endorsed returning to the moon and going on to Mars. Also, Bridenstine has forged a bipartisan congressional consensus and international support for the Artemis program. It would be very hard for Biden to terminate Artemis. Indeed, Obama’s cancellation of Constellation elicited bipartisan fury that almost derailed his commercial crew program. Ironically, it came to success during the last year of the Trump presidency. Biden, or at least his advisors, no doubt remember what happened and will want to avoid a repeat.

If one were to make a guess about the future of the SLS and the Artemis program, the prediction is that both will continue. During a media teleconference about the hot-fire test, NASA officials suggested that the more they learn about the SLS rockets the faster and cheaper they will be able to operate and manufacture them.

The first woman and the next man will not walk on the moon by 2024, but they likely will at some point. When the next moonwalk happens, it will be because of brilliant people who have mastered rocket science, as hard as it is.

Mark Whittington, who writes frequently about space and politics, has published a political study of space exploration entitled Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon? as well as "The Moon, Mars and Beyond." He blogs at Curmudgeons Corner.  He is published in the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, The Hill, USA Today, the LA Times, and the Washington Post, among other venues.