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NASA to do full engine test of SLS first stage

NASA confirmed yesterday that it will do a full engine test of its SLS first stage, what it calls the Green Run test.

This decision makes sense. SpaceX for example routinely does a static fire test of its first stages before every flight. NASA however had hesitated doing this test because it will likely force a delay in the first launch of SLS. Unlike a commercial company like SpaceX, NASA is incapable of doing this test and then proceeding to flight quickly, mostly because the size of SLS (it is very large) and its design (very cumbersome) makes such quick action difficult.

This decision however means that it is almost certain that SLS’s first unmanned test launch cannot happen in 2020. For NASA to make Trump’s commitment to fly a lunar landing by 2024 means that NASA must compress SLS’s schedule to one flight per year. First the unmanned test flight would occur, probably in 2021. Then the first manned test flight around the Moon would follow, in 2022 or 2023. Finally the landing mission would take place in 2024.

Can NASA do this? I have many doubts. The agency’s biggest obstacle would be getting their lunar lander built in time, which by the way is not yet even designed. This isn’t the only problem. NASA for years has said that they will need from one to three years between SLS flights. This schedule demands more from them.

Meanwhile, there is a good possibility that SpaceX will beat them to the Moon. If that happens, then expect SLS to die, either before or after its first or second flight.


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  • David Eastman

    I have never understood why the green run will take six months. OK, it’s NASA, and it’s not a rocket designed for re-use, I see that it’s going to take longer than a Falcon 9 or even Heavy. But from 1-2 days, if that, to 180 (and more likely more like 200+ days?) How, how in the world is that possible, what can they possibly do that takes that much time? Is there a list anywhere in the public domain?

  • Diane Wilson

    These are Shuttle main engines, which ARE designed for reuse, and have been reused. Although I believe they do require refurbishing after each use. This is one of the great absurdities of SLS; the Constellation program (which became SLS) was directed to reuse as much Shuttle technology as possible, in order to reduce costs and development time.

    I seem to remember that SpaceX does a full-duration burn test for each new first stage, before sending it on for launch. Can anyone confirm that?

  • Dick Eagleson

    You are correct, Diane. Every new F9 and FH first stage gets a full-duration static fire (150 sec.) on a test stand at McGregor, TX. Then the stage is tidied up, wrapped for transport and trucked off either to Kennedy/Canaveral or back to CA and Vandenberg.

    As for David’s question, we mere mortals are never likely to be vouchsafed an answer. Perhaps there are steps that involve mandatory demon summonings or midnight animal sacrifices that can only be done at certain times of year. SpaceX seems to have no such limitations. They do a bunch of “green runs” every year, each on a schedule measured in days, not months.

  • David Eastman

    I remember being told at one point, I don’t know whether it was true or not, that the process of bolting the SSME’s back onto the orbiter was well over 200 man hours. The actual process of moving the engines in place and bolting them on would take less than an hour, but just getting the bolts out of secure storage took significant paperwork, multiple people, etc. Then they had to be inspected multiple ways, again with multiple engineers, a manager, and at least one security guard. There were something like 100 documented steps from getting the bolts to finally being done with the engines, and each step required at least 3 people. And supposedly every single step was critical, and had been added to the list because of something that had gone wrong before they did it. But I suspect SpaceX has maybe 10 steps, max.

  • NASA flew four (1,2,3,4) Apollo missions in 1968. And four more in 1969. At SLS launch rate; Apollo would have finished up sometime around 1997.

  • Col Beausabre


    Well, I guess it’s better than ten years, which is their current record

    Someday, someone at a prestigious business school absolutely has to do a case study on how NASA’s culture changed from Can Do to Never Do (It Might Risk Our Jobs)

    Any PhD candidates out there looking for a topic?

  • David Eastman: The problem is that the Green Run test is being done at a special very expensive test stand at (I think) Stennis. Then everything has be be shipped to Kennedy.

  • Edward

    I think that each comment has some aspect of the problem laid out correctly.

    Diane is correct that something went wrong with the plan to reduce new design and development time, and I remember the same thing about SpaceX full-duration tests on each new rocket, but I haven’t looked it up to confirm.

    Dick is right, SpaceX is reducing the mandatory demon summonings and midnight animal sacrifices that can only be done at certain times of year. It helps them keep up the pace.

    David is right. I worked at a heritage aerospace company that turned one-step screw or connector installations into three to five steps, with buyoffs for each step, often including an inspector to assure the job was done right. Supposedly every single added step was critical, and had been added to the list because of something that had gone wrong before. SpaceX seems to be working hard to avoid becoming such a bureaucratic nightmare. NASA and military projects can afford all the extra work, because they are spending other people’s money. SpaceX is spending their own money and just don’t have much extra to waste on unnecessary, time-consuming work.

    Blair’s note about Apollo is right. NASA was serious about accomplishing great things, back then. Now Congress gets on their case any time something goes wrong, so NASA has slowed down and takes fewer risks. Even if the accidents happen at the same per-flight rate, it takes six to twelve times longer between such disasters, so they may not happen on ‘my’ watch, and someone else might take the heat. This is the problem with changing NASA from being run by the scientists, astronauts, and engineers to being run by Washington types. CYA becomes nominal.

    Col’s desire to find out how to avoid the no-can-do attitude should be very helpful to the NewSpace companies. Keeping that can-do spirit is one of the big advantages that they have over the bureaucratic heritage companies.

    Robert is right, too. NASA just does not have the sense of urgency that it had in the past, so they do not plan for quick turnaround. They plan and execute with all that bureaucratic nonsense in mind.

    Forty years ago, the airline industry realized that the accident rate was far too high for the increasing numbers of flights. To fly NASA’s way would have been to add so much bureaucracy to flight turnaround activity that flights would have slowed as much as the SLS has slowed from the Apollo cadence.

    Instead, the airline industry found ways to improve reliability and quality without slowing the turnaround process. The U.S. went more than ten years without any fatal accidents on major airlines between American Airlines flight 587 crashing in New York in November 2001 and Asiana Airlines crashing in San Francisco in July 2013. (I recall that during this period, a small commuter plane crashed due to icing on its wings.)

    Commercial space should be trying to do as the airlines did, not as NASA did. They have a much harder uphill climb than the airlines did in 1980, because the passenger airline industry is approaching a century in age and has learned many hard lessons, but commercial manned space still needs to learn almost all of its hard lessons. It all depends upon how brave we are to risk lives in the 21st century in order to learn those lessons, just as aviation was brave in the 20th century. (7 minutes, Bill Whittle: “The Deal”)

  • > SpaceX will beat them to the Moon. If that happens, then expect SLS to die

    I expect that, when Starship first reaches orbit, SLS will then be dealt a blow from which it will die. Because it is that point where the decision-makers can no longer ignore Starship nor its obvious probability of having SLS’s capability at far less cost. The decision-makers will see the handwriting on the wall and realize that any further support for SLS on their part will reflect increasingly negatively upon their leadership.

    Do bear in mind that Bridenstine, Pence, Pace and offers have stated that all options are on the table and that they are not wedded to any single contractor. They were obviously referring to Boeing with its SLS.

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