NASA has announced the second hot fire test of its Artemis 1 SLS core stage will be conducted on March 18. The result of the test may have a significant impact on the fate of the agency’s next-generation launch vehicle.
The first SLS core stage hot fire test was completed January 16 and aborted just one minute into an eight-minute burn. Although overly conservative testing parameters were identified as the cause of the early abort, NASA acquired insufficient data during the 60-second test to be able to proceed.
Although this failure appears to have only delayed the SLS development schedule by two months, it is the latest in a long line of delays that has set the maiden launch of the rocket back years.
The maiden SLS rocket had initially been scheduled to launch in 2016. It is now likely that a maiden flight will not take place until 2022.
Despite funding for the SLS program having received near-unanimous support from congress in the past, that patient support appears to now finally be waning.
In a January 24 memo, NASA’s Planetary Mission Program Office informed agency personnel that its Europa Clipper mission would no longer be launched aboard an SLS rocket, a requirement that had delayed the project and ballooned its budget.
The agency’s Europa Clipper mission is set to study the smallest of Jupiter’s four Galilean moons and complete flybys of several other destinations. The mission had been one of the only notable payloads selected to be launched aboard SLS over and above the agency’s Artemis missions.
With the agency removing the Europa Clipper mission from the SLS flight manifest, the first crack in the program’s ironclad support appeared and has only grown since.
On March 15, Ars Technica’s Eric Berger reported that NASA has begun a review of the SLS rocket’s affordability. According to Berger, the goal of the study will be to find ways to ensure that SLS can compete with commercial launch vehicles.
At an estimated $2 billion, the cost of an SLS mission will dwarf anything else flying today and likely anything that is currently under development. In addition to the per-unit launch cost, at a maximum cadence of one launch per year, the program is unlikely to offer many opportunities for commercial missions, the revenue from which could be used to offset launch costs.
As pressure begins to mount on the program and prime contractors Boeing, the March 18 hot fire test could be a tipping point for the future of the SLS rocket. If the test is completed successfully and the first Artemis I mission launched within a year, the program could benefit from some much-needed momentum. However, if the test were to not go according to plan a second time, its future may be very uncertain indeed.