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NASA is sorry for getting your hopes up

Published Jan 20th, 2021 6:24PM EST
sls test
Image: 3dsculptor/Adobe

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  • NASA’s test-firing of its SLS rocket’s core stage this past weekend was bizarre for a number of reasons, not least of which was that it lasted just one minute.
  • Now, NASA is reportedly a bit remorseful for hyping up the test and says that it should have been more forthcoming with the public beforehand.
  • During the test, one of the engines triggered a failure warning and the firing was immediately ceased.

NASA is apparently sorry that it got all of our hopes up ahead of the test firing of its oft-delayed SLS rocket core stage this past weekend. The test lasted just 67 seconds before a system monitoring the test triggered a shutdown due to what was described at the time as a “Major Component Failure,” but what we now know was just a piece of data that exceeded predetermined limits.

As The Washington Post report, the test got a lot of publicity ahead of time, but in a private briefing on Tuesday morning, officials said that the possibility of the test succeeding in all of its objectives was nothing more than a coin flip. Those “50/50” odds weren’t communicated ahead of time, especially not to the general public, and when the test was cut short it left many people worried that something serious had gone wrong.

NASA eventually came out with an explanation for the shutdown, noting that “intentionally conservative” parameters were set ahead of time, and that when one of the engines exceeded these parameters, the shutdown was triggered automatically.

The reason for the shutdown was reported as being a “Major Component Failure” because that’s what the computer thought had happened. In reality, the engines were firing as planned and were performing well even up to the moment that the system performed its automatic shutdown.

The Washington Post reports that it obtained notes from the briefing from someone who was there and that officials agreed that “public expectations should have been set lower” ahead of the test getting underway. Instead, viewers expected to see NASA’s incredibly powerful and ridiculously expensive rocket stretch its legs, so to speak, only to be left concerned and confused when the core stage went silent.

It wasn’t immediately clear what went wrong, which only added to the mystery and concern that something had truly “broken.” But despite the engines not actually failing, the test didn’t provide engineers with nearly as much data as they needed. NASA was reportedly considering moving on without a second test of the core stage but ultimately decided that a second, more robust test was needed to ensure that the rocket is shaping up the way it needs to.

The SLS has been delayed so many times, with huge cost overruns, so pushing things back a bit for a second test firing like this is not only unsurprising but probably also the best course of action, given the circumstances.

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