Successful moon rocket test moves NASA closer to deep space

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March 19, 2021
moon space rocket
The core stage for the first flight of NASA’s Space Launch System rocket is seen in the B-2 Test Stand during a second hot fire test, Thursday, March 18, 2021, at NASA’s Stennis Space Center near Bay St. Louis, Mississippi. Photo : (NASA/Robert Markowitz)

An important step on the road back to the moon was taken Thursday with a successful 8-minute “hot fire” of the Artemis 1 core stage, the largest rocket element ever built by NASA.

The test at NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Mississippi involved all four of the core stage’s R-25 rockets and produced a hefty 1.6 million pounds of thrust.

The core stage is part of the Space Launch System, the most powerful rocket NASA has ever built, and Thursday’s test was designed to validate the component for flight ahead of the Artemis I mission to the moon scheduled for late next year.

Artemis I will take an unmanned capsule to the moon and back ahead of a planned mission to land three astronauts on the lunar surface, including the first woman.

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The stage has a complex network of flight software and avionics systems designed to help fly, track, and steer the rocket during launch and flight. These, along with the hydraulics system, were subject to a series of tests known as a Green Run prior to the engines firing.

This is the second hot fire test — the first ended earlier than expected — and NASA experts will pore over the data provided as the core stage is refurbished and shipped to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida to be assembled with other parts of the SLS.

The test lasted eight minutes and 19 seconds and used some 733,000 gallons (2.77m litres) of liquid oxygen and hydrogen that took 114 tanker trucks and six propellant barges to deliver.

Engineers looked at how the stage behaved during critical functions such as throttling up and down and moving the engines in a variety of patterns.

“The SLS is an incredible feat of engineering and the only rocket capable of powering America’s next-generation missions that will place the first woman and the next man on the Moon,” said acting NASA Administrator Steve Jurczyk.

“Today’s successful hot fire test of the core stage for the SLS is an important milestone in NASA’s goal to return humans to the lunar surface – and beyond.”

In Florida, the core stage will be assembled with the solid rocket boosters and NASA’s Orion spacecraft on a mobile launcher inside the Vehicle Assembly Building.

The SLS and an orbiting way station around the moon called Gateway are key elements in NASA’s return to deep space and its plans to eventually reach Mars.

Gateway, about one-sixth the size of the International Space Station, will provide pressurized living quarters and serve as a rendezvous point for astronauts traveling on Orion prior to landing on the moon.

The test was a welcome success for major contractor Boeing at a time it has been experiencing more than its fair share of troubles.

“Deep space exploration took an important step forward today,” said John Shannon, SLS vice president and program manager for Boeing.

“The advancements made on the all-new SLS core stage are positive for NASA and the national supply chain.”