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Next NASA chief faces big moonshot decisions

President Joe Biden’s choice to lead NASA — former U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson — will be in the hot seat for a host of issues in human spaceflight that will require a tricky balance between “Old Space” and “New Space.”

Nelson is a 78-year-old Florida Democrat who went on a space shuttle flight as a congressman in 1986, and served three terms in the Senate before his defeat in 2018. In today’s statement announcing his nomination, the White House said that Nelson “was known as the go-to senator for our nation’s space program,” and that “most every piece of space and science law has had his imprint.”

“I am honored to be nominated by Joe Biden and, if confirmed, to help lead NASA into an exciting future of possibilities,” Nelson said in a statement. “Its workforce radiates optimism, ingenuity and a can-do spirit. The NASA team continues to achieve the seemingly impossible as we venture into the cosmos.”

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Cosmic Space

NASA’s SLS rocket completes engine test on second try

Two months after an intial hot-fire test ended prematurely, the four engines on the core stage of NASA’s heavy-lift Space Launch System were fired up for the full duration of eight minutes today.

The successful engine test marks a major milestone for the rocket that’s due to get an uncrewed round-the-moon test flight off the ground late this year or in early 2022 — and for an Artemis program that’s due to put astronauts on the lunar surface in the mid-2020s.

“The SLS is the most powerful rocket NASA has ever built, and during today’s test the core stage of the rocket generated more than 1.6 million pounds of thrust within seven seconds,” acting NASA Administrator Steve Jurczyk said in a news release. “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.”

The Aerojet Rocketdyne RS-25 rocket engines are holdovers from the space shuttle program that have been refurbished for reuse on the SLS. Those engines consume more than 733,000 gallons of super-chilled liquid hydrogen and oxygen for their full duration.

During Jan. 16’s “Green Run” test at NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Mississippi, the SLS core stage’s RS-25 engines fired for a little more than a minute before shutting themselves down. Engineers determined that the shutdown occurred when pressure in a hydraulic system exceeded its conservative pre-set limits. Adjustments were made for today’s second test at Stennis.

This time around, the engines fired for 499.6 seconds straight, achieving 109% of the power that would be required during the 212-foot-tall booster’s eight-minute ascent to Earth orbit. The engines were also put through a series of movements in specific patterns to direct their thrust.

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Cosmic Space

NASA’s moon rocket test ends early, raising questions

NASA’s first full-up, on-the-ground test for the main engines on its heavy-lift Space Launch System rocket ended prematurely today due to an automated shutdown.

“Today was an important day,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said after the test. “I know not everybody is feeling as happy as we otherwise could, because we wanted to get eight minutes of a hot fire, and we got over a minute.”

Despite the early shutdown,  NASA said the “Green Run” engine test produced valuable data in preparation for the first honest-to-goodness SLS launch, currently set for late this year.

That launch would kick off an uncrewed round-the-moon trip for NASA’s Orion spacecraft. The mission, known as Artemis 1, is a key step in the plan to send astronauts around the moon on NASA’s Artemis 2 mission in the 2023 time frame, and then put them on the lunar surface by as early as 2024 during the Artemis 3 mission.

Today’s test at Stennis Space Center in Mississippi focused on the SLS rocket’s core stage and its four Aerojet Rocketdyne RS-25 engines. The engines are refurbished leftovers from the space shuttle program, and had been used on shuttle missions going as far back as 1998.

Each of the engines delivers more than 400,000 pounds of thrust, adding up to 1.6 million pounds of thrust when all four engines are firing. When the Artemis 1 mission lifts off, the SLS’ solid rocket boosters will bring total thrust to more than 8 million pounds. In comparison, the Saturn V moon rocket’s first stage delivered 7.6 million pounds of thrust back in the 1960s and 1970s.

NASA’s SLS team put months of work into the preparations for today’s test. More than 700,000 pounds of super-chilled hydrogen and oxygen were loaded into the core stage’s tanks for the engine firing. When the countdown reached zero, all four engines roared into life on cue, sending giant clouds of steam billowing into the air.

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Target for SLS rocket’s first launch shifts to 2021

SLS tank test
NASA engineers load a test article for the SLS liquid-oxygen tank into its test stand at Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama. (NASA Photo)

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine told lawmakers today that the first launch of the heavy-lift Space Launch System was “definitely achievable by 2021,” seemingly signaling a shift in the plan for a 2020 maiden launch.

Bridenstine’s testimony to the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation came just a day after he wrote in a blog post that NASA was “staying on schedule for flying the Artemis 1 mission with our Orion spacecraft on the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket next year, and for sending the first crewed mission, Artemis 2, to the lunar vicinity by 2022.”

Artemis 1, previously known as Exploration Mission 1 or EM-1, would launch an uncrewed Orion capsule on a test flight looping around the moon. Artemis 2 would trace a similar course with a crew on board, in preparation for sending two astronauts to the moon’s surface in 2024 via a yet-to-be-built Gateway space outpost in lunar orbit..

Today, Bridenstine said Artemis 2 was scheduled for the 2022-2023 time frame. He stuck with the 2024 date for the lunar landing.

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Watchdogs worry over NASA super-rocket

Space Launch System
An artist’s conception shows NASA’s Space Launch System in flight. (NASA Illustration)

The federal government’s watchdog agency says getting NASA’s heavy-lift Space Launch System rocket off the ground is likely to take longer and cost more than the space agency says it will.

Any issues that crop up in the months ahead could push the first uncrewed SLS launch, known as Artemis 1, from its planned mid-2020 timetable to mid-2021, the Government Accountability Office said in a study issued today.

What’s more, the GAO says NASA has been shifting costs forward to make it look as if expenses for the first launch have grown by $1 billion, when the actual adjusted cost growth is $1.8 billion.

Schedule and cost issues for SLS are particularly problematic because the rocket has been selected to carry NASA astronauts to the moon by 2024.

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NASA considers going commercial for moon flight

Orion spaceship
An artist’s conception shows NASA’s Orion deep-space crew capsule with its European Service Module placed beneath it and an upper stage powering it out of Earth orbit. (NASA Illustration)

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine told a Senate hearing today that his agency is looking into an option to double up commercial launch vehicles in order to keep a crucial test mission for its Orion spaceship and European-built service module on schedule for mid-2020.

The shift would take NASA’s own heavy-lift Space Launch System rocket, or SLS, out of the rotation for the uncrewed test flight around the moon, known as Exploration Mission 1 or EM-1.

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Budget proposal tightens the screws on science

Space Launch System
An artist’s conception shows NASA’s Space Launch System in flight. (NASA Illustration)sls

The White House’s $4.7 trillion spending plan for fiscal year 2020 aims to give a boost to the Space Force, but would dial down work on NASA’s Space Launch System, zero out the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope, leave salmon in the lurch and slash science spending on other fronts.

When it comes to outer space, the brightest spotlight falls on lunar exploration and space commercialization — which is in line with the priorities of the National Space Council, headed by Vice President Mike Pence. And when it comes to earthly realms in science and technology, artificial intelligence and quantum computing shine.

It’s important to remember, however, that every year’s budget request is pronounced “dead on arrival” by critics in Congress. That’s particularly so this year, with Democrats in control of the House.

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NASA watchdogs document rocket missteps

SLS test intertank on barge
A structural test version of the intertank for NASA’s new deep-space rocket, the Space Launch System, arrives at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in March for testing aboard the barge Pegasus. The intertank is the second piece of structural hardware for the massive SLS core stage. (NASA Photo)

NASA’s Space Launch System, the rocket that’s being designed to send astronauts to the moon and Mars, seems likely to miss the schedule for its first test launch in 2020 due to poor management by Boeing and its overseers, the space agency’s auditors say.

report released today by the NASA Office of Inspector General projects that the delivery of the first Boeing-built core stage for the heavy-lift SLS rocket may slip beyond its currently scheduled date of December 2019. What’s more, the cost of SLS development is on track to amount to at least $8.9 billion, which is twice what was originally budgeted, the auditors say.

“Boeing’s cost and schedule challenges are likely to worsen, given that the SLS has yet to undergo its ‘Green Run Test’ — a major milestone that integrates and tests the Core Stage components,” NASA said in a summary of the report.

To meet the schedule for an uncrewed test flight around the moon by 2020, followed by a crewed flight in 2022 and the development of a new upper-stage booster for flights after that, the SLS program will have to be given a “major increase in funding” and renegotiate NASA’s contract with Boeing, the report says.

Much of the blame was laid on mismanagement at Boeing.

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NASA’s SLS rocket engine test gets cut short

NASA put a developmental model of the RS-25 engine for its heavy-lift Space Launch System rocket through a hot-fire test today at Stennis Space Center in Mississippi, with NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine in attendance. Although the test firing ended at 319 seconds rather than the originally planned 500 seconds, officials said the test achieved all its planned objectives.

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NASA fires shuttle rocket engine to the max

Rocket engine firing
Exhaust billows out from a rocket test tower at NASA’s Stennis Space Center during a test firing of an RS-25 rocket engine. (NASA via YouTube)

Like a “Spinal Tap” guitarist, NASA turned the dial up to 11 today on a souped-up rocket engine from the bygone space shuttle program.

The 260-second engine firing at Stennis Space Center in Mississippi represented the toughest test yet for hardware that’s destined to go on the Space Launch System, NASA’s heavy-lift rocket.

NASA plans to use sets of Aerojet Rocketdyne RS-25 rocket engines left over from the shuttle program in the main propulsion systems on the first four SLS rockets, four at a time. Fourteen of the 16 hydrogen-fueled engines were previously installed on the shuttle orbiters, which were retired in 2011 and are now on display in museums.

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