A critical piece of NASA's giant moon rocket is in good shape, even after a test shot was abruptly canceled after a little over a minute on Saturday, space agency officials said Tuesday.
Officials said it was too early to say whether the test, which ignited the four engines for eight minutes during an ascent into orbit, should be repeated. If the engineers find they have learned enough and can skip a second test, NASA will send the booster phase of what is known as the Space Launch System to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
"It is too early to say which direction we are going at this point," said John Shannon, Boeing's program manager for the rocket, during a press conference Tuesday. Boeing built the booster, which is often referred to as the core stage.
A crewless test attempt is currently scheduled for November, and Kathy Lueders, Associate Administrator of Human Exploration and Operations at NASA, didn't rule out the launch of the rocket, known as the Space Launch System, still happening in 2021, according to the program Years behind schedule and cost billions of dollars to get this far. Each rocket could cost $ 2 billion to launch and can only be used once.
The premature shutdown of the engines was caused by low hydraulic pressure in a component called an auxiliary power unit. Since the booster phase in the test is the same one that is brought into space, the engineers took extra care not to damage it during the test. If the same thing had happened during a flight, the engines would not have been shut off.
"We would have continued flying after we encountered the condition we saw during the test," said John Honeycutt, NASA's program manager for the rocket program.
Another problem that arose during the test – what was described as a "fatal component failure" on one of the motors – turned out to be an issue with a sensor that was irrelevant when the test was shut down. Inspections afterwards showed that all four engines were in good condition.
However, engineers at NASA and Boeing now face two imperfect options. You could repeat the test – maybe a shorter one – to collect the remaining data. However, there is always a risk that something will go wrong during a test. Or the engineers could decide they have enough information and move it to Florida.
"This is our flight core phase," said Ms. Lueders. "So you have to understand how high the risk is of suspending the flight core phase for another round of testing."
For Jim Bridenstine, the NASA administrator, Tuesday was his last full day at work. He will step down on Wednesday when President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. is inaugurated.
In contrast to the turmoil in many corners of President Trump's administration over the past few days, Bridenstine stressed the importance of continuity, saying NASA had the support of Republicans and Democrats.
"It should never be partial," said Bridenstine. “It should always be an association. It should bring people together for science, discovery, and exploration. "
Mr Trump did not always agree and at times made imprecise changes to the Obama administration's space policy as his administration set a goal of getting astronauts to return to the moon by 2024. But that seemed out of reach even before Mr Trump lost re-election, as Congress did not provide as much money as was needed to develop the landers to get astronauts to the lunar surface.
Mr Bridenstine said NASA had figured out whether the Trump administration's plans needed adjusting.
"I have no doubt that the amazing people at NASA will come up with a range of options for our return to the moon that the next government can fully accept and support," he said.
Mr. Biden has not yet announced who he will appoint as the next NASA administrator, but Mr. Bridenstine has pledged support.
"Now I can see it as a taxpayer, not the head of the agency," he said. "But I will be watching with great interest and will definitely be cheering you on all the way."