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NASA wants to launch SLS in September; needs range safety office waiver to do it

In outlining the status of the repair work on the hydrogen leak on SLS on the launchpad yesterday, NASA officials indicated that they are targeting a September 23rd launch date that will require the Space Force range safety office to okay the use of a flight abort system with batteries that are significantly past their use-by date.

NASA has submitted a request to the Eastern Range for an extension of the current testing requirement for the flight termination system. NASA is respecting the range’s processes for review of the request, and the agency continues to provide detailed information to support a range decision.

The range office had required that the batteries for that flight termination system be checked every 20 days, a process that requires the rocket to be rolled back to the assembly building. It had already given NASA a five day extension to 25 days, but even that was insufficient to get the rocket launched in its previous launch window, expiring on September 6th. Though NASA has not said how long an extension it is requesting, to do a September 23rd launch would require another extension of 17 days, making for a total 23-day waiver for those batteries. Thus, instead of limiting the life of those batteries to 20 days, NASA is requesting the range to allow the batteries to go unchecked for 43 days, at a minimum.

For the range to give that first waiver I think is somewhat unprecedented. To do it again, for that much time, seems foolish, especially as this will the rocket’s first launch, and a lot can go wrong.

NASA officials also hinted during yesterday’s press conference — in their bureaucrat way — that human error might have caused the hydrogen leak.

NASA has not confirmed if an “inadvertent” manual command that briefly overpressurized the hydrogen fuel line caused the leak, but the agency is investigating the incident. Bolger said new manual processes replaced automated ones during the second attempt and the launch team could have used more time to practice them. “So we didn’t, as a leadership team, put our our operators in the best place we could have,” Bolger said. During the Sept. 17 fueling test, NASA will try out a slower, “kinder and gentler” process that should avoid such events.

If the Space Force and the Biden administration demand the range officer allow this rocket, with this team, to be launched with a questionable flight termination system, we should expect public resignations from several range officers. Whether anyone in our present government however has the ethics to do such a thing appears very doubtful.

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9 comments

  • Ray Van Dune

    Last week I said something to the effect that no RSO could possibly set such a precedent, or be allowed to. I guess NASA believes otherwise.

    If they launch, or attempt a launch, with a critical piece of safety equipment that is known to be out of compliance, I will NOT be watching. That may sound trivial, but as one who loves spaceflight it isn’t, as it’s all I can do.

    NASA is making their “commitment to safety” a sick joke.

  • Col Beausabre

    Not only NO, but you know what NO!!! It makes a mockery of the whole range safety process

  • David Ross

    Any range-officer who resigns can easily get re-hired at any other rocket company. So there’s little downside in telling NASA to get stuffed. They can’t be blackballed.
    This is all beginning to look like the set of Rust isn’t it?

  • GaryMike

    Common sense must obey the politics in all matters.

    Not the other way around.

  • David

    Have the parties responsible for the design, manufacturing, and testing of the batteries themselves weighed in with NASA (and the public) about such a drastic deviation from standing procedures?

    I thought I’d read somewhere that the Range Safety Officer was completely independent of NASA in this matter. Sure hope that’s true, pressure be ….

    Anyway, it is a sad cry from the heady days of the 60’s when our dad would take us kids to our favorite viewing point at the Cape to watch launches.

    As always, thank you Mr. Zimmerman for your long history of reporting on the SLS. Top drawer work sir.

  • Concerned

    Ray Van Dune: NASA’s “commitment to safety” has about a 3 year half life. Apollo 1 to Challenger was 19 years, Challenger to Columbia was 17 years—we’re just about on schedule for another disaster because reckless political management overrode sound engineering, maybe with this SLS launch. I hope it’s not for the next one, with 4 hapless astronauts.

    I wouldn’t boycott watching—but I will watch with fascination and a sense of deja vu.

  • Lee S

    It really is hard for me to wrap my head around NASAs over abundance of caution in some matters, and reckless disregard of caution in others…. I guess this is what happens when you have a space program run by committee.

    I believe the thing is being rolled back for the leaks and sensors to be fixed, and the batteries checked, but what about the SFBs? Already past their bbd, I guess they will be fine if someone signs off on them.

    Also, serious question… What’s with the batteries having a month shelf life? I have a 12 month warranty on the battery in my electric bike, and if fully charged, it still has over 80% if I don’t touch it for 3 months…

  • Hey Lee, why are you surprised or baffled? This kind of illogical and insane behavior is a feature of socialist-style governments. It is what you want!

  • Jeff Wright

    My birthday is September 22nd…a good gift.

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