Sun. Oct 2nd, 2022
Four RS-25 reusable engines will power NASA's SLS rocket as it goes into space, and then they'll be discarded.

Four RS-25 reusable engines will power NASA’s SLS rocket as it goes into space, and then they’ll be discarded.

NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said Friday that he is “very confident” in a possible November 2021 launch for the large Space Launch System rocket.

While Bridenstine expressed confidence in this date, she added that there are uncertainties between now and then. One is technical: The core stage of the SLS rocket is due to undergo a series of tests this summer and fall before being moved to the launch pad. The second problem is the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, which is spreading in several NASA centers.

Green Run test

In January, NASA and the contractor for the core phase of the SLS rocket, Boeing, moved the vehicle to the Stennis Space Center in southern Mississippi. Since then, workers have put the podium — which consists of four main space shuttle engines and very large tanks to store liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen propellants — through a series of tests.

This week, Boeing officials said they expect to conduct the last and most important of those tests in October: ignite all four of the missile’s engines and fire them for about eight minutes to simulate an actual launch.

If this test is successful, the core stage will then be moved by barge to the Kennedy Space Center, likely in early 2021. After that, two side-mounted boosters will be added, along with an upper stage and the Orion spacecraft. This entire stack will then undergo further testing before finally being launched on an unmanned test flight. A late 2021 launch date assumes all of these activities will continue as planned, which is far from certain when it comes to a new rocket.

Pandemic Concerns

On Friday, Bridenstine also expressed concern about the COVID-19 pandemic. He appeared on a webinar produced by Aviation Week and said the virus could affect scheduling for all NASA programs, including SLS.

“I think we’re fine for now, but if we don’t get to grips with the coronavirus pandemic in the near future, it’s going to be tough,” Bridenstine said. “If the coronavirus pandemic is not a problem, then I am confident in November 2021.”

NASA’s major human spaceflight centers — in Texas, Florida and Alabama — are all in states that are seeing a rapid growth in COVID-19 cases. The situation in Mississippi isn’t great either, with the seven-day moving average more than quadrupling in the past month to more than 800 cases a day. Stennis was shut down for a few months this spring due to the pandemic, but has since reopened.

Bridenstine said that if a Stennis employee tests positive, she can suspend operations, perhaps for a week to assess the situation and conduct contact tracing. If that happens enough, he said, it will eat up the margin built into the schedule to complete tests on the big test bench in Mississippi this year.

By akfire1

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