NASA has spent years and billions of dollars developing a giant rocket known as the Space Launch System, designed to take astronauts to moon and perhaps farther out into the solar system someday. But the first launch of the rocket — an uncrewed test flight that will go to the moon and beyond — will not get off the ground until at least November.
This Saturday, though, NASA is scheduled to put on a fiery show as it performs a crucial test: igniting all four engines of the booster stage for up to eight minutes, simulating what would occur during an actual launch to orbit. The booster, however, will remain securely held down at a test stand at NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Mississippi.
When is the test fire and how can I watch it?
The test fire is scheduled for Saturday at 5 p.m. Eastern time. NASA Television will broadcast coverage of the test beginning at 4:20 p.m. A news conference is scheduled to follow about two hours after the test.
What is Space Launch System and why does NASA say it needs the rocket?
The Space Launch System is the 21st-century equivalent of the Saturn V that took NASA astronauts to the moon in the 1960s and 1970s. Although there are many other rockets available today, they are too small to launch spacecraft that can carry people to the moon. (A possible exception is SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy, but a human lunar mission would require two separate launches carrying pieces that would then dock together in space or head separately to the moon.)
The Falcon Heavy can lift up to 64 metric tons to low-Earth orbit. The initial version of the S.L.S. is a bit more powerful, capable of lifting 70 metric tons, and future versions of the rocket will be able to loft up to 130 metric tons, more than the rockets that carried the Apollo astronauts to the moon.
Although the Space Launch System will be expensive — up to $2 billion a launch for a rocket that can be used only once — Congress has provided steadfast financial support for it so far. Supporters maintain that it is important for the government to own and operate its own powerful deep-space rocket, and pieces of the system are built by companies across the country, spreading the economic benefits to many states and congressional districts.
The Space Launch System is a key component for Artemis, the program to take NASA astronauts back to the moon in the coming years. Although President Trump pledged to make the trip by the end of 2024, few expected that NASA would actually meet that timeline, even before President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. was elected.
Why is the rocket so far behind schedule?
When NASA announced its plans for the Space Launch System in 2011, the first launch was scheduled for 2016. As is typical for new rocket designs, the development ran into technical difficulties, such as the need to develop procedures for welding together pieces of metal as large as those in the rocket. NASA also paused work on the rocket for a time last year during the early stages of coronavirus outbreak.
As the date of the first launch slipped several times, the price tag rose. NASA has so far spent more than $10 billion on the rocket and more than $16 billion on the Orion capsule where the astronauts will sit.
Why is the test fire important?
The test fire is part of what NASA calls the green run, a series of tests of the fully assembled booster stage. The same booster will be used for the first flight to space, so engineers want to ensure that it is working as designed before launching it.
What could go wrong during the test?
Just as with a real launch, technical glitches occur. In an earlier test, known as a wet dress rehearsal, in which the entire countdown was simulated except for igniting the engines, almost everything went well. But in the last few seconds, one of the propellant valves did not close as soon as expected. It turned out that the temperature was a bit lower than predicted, and that made the valve a bit harder to turn. The software has since been adjusted.
A worst case would be if a malfunction led to destruction of the booster. That would add years of delay to the program and renew calls for NASA to consider alternatives.