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SLS dress rehearsal countdown ends at T-29 seconds

NASA’s fourth attempt to complete a full dress rehearsal countdown of its giant SLS rocket today ended at T-29 seconds, just short of the complete countdown.

It appears the countdown had one issue — a hydrogen fuel leak at the point where the umbilical fuel line attaches to the rocket — that mission control decided to ignore (or “mask” to use their word) so that they could proceed into the count as far as possible. It was this decision however that caused the two-hour delay in the countdown. They then resumed the countdown at T-10 minutes, the beginning of terminal count.

During the terminal count, the teams performed several critical operations that must be accomplished for launch including switching control from the ground launch sequencer to the automated launch sequencer controlled by the rocket’s flight software, and important step that the team wanted to accomplish.

NASA will hold a press conference tomorrow at 11 am (Eastern) to discuss the results of this dress rehearsal. While the leak is concerning, I expect NASA to decide that this dress rehearsal was a success, that they will roll the rocket back to the vehicle assembly building where they will fix this problem, after which the agency will declare the rocket ready to launch by the end of August.

While risky, doing otherwise likely raises other risks. If they decide to do another dress rehearsal the launch faces more delays. And waiting much longer continues to increase the danger that the solid rocket side boosters will not function as intended because they have been stacked almost a year longer than their accepted use-by date.

If this turns out to be the plan, expect the actual launch countdown to be as plagued with issues and delays and scrubs. NASA has yet to demonstrate it can do this smoothly with no problems. Worse, this level of mediocre performance has been par for the course for this entire SLS program.

If that launch should go smoothly it will be a welcome and unprecedented event.

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  • David Eastman

    The stack time on the boosters is a soft limit, they don’t really know what the time limit on that one is, and visual inspections so far have been good. But there is a much harder limit on the number of times they can pressurize and de-pressurize the tanks. Metal fatigue and seals that aren’t meant to be replaced are not limits they can waive. I believe they can do one more full countdown and abort, and after that, it either flies or becomes a display piece.

  • David Eastman: Ah yes, I forgot about this other limitation, which in a sense is even a more astonishing one.

    One more countdown, eh?

  • This sounds about par for the 1960’s, not 2020’s. A bunch of parts manufactured by the lowest bidder that have to be integrated and assembled by government employees. Acceptable when that’s all there was, but not nearly the case, now.

    Give it up, NASA. Get the thing off the ground, into orbit, plant the flag, and declare victory. Then, let commercial space do the rest.

  • Col Beausabre

    Reference the LCS, this was something I predicted when the program was announced. The USN has had a terrible record on small combatants since WW2, producing failure after failure. I was pooh-poohed at the time, “This time will be different, the Navy has learned its lesson.” (Just like what a wandering husband tells his wife after he is found to be unfaithful again). The thing is, that we need the capabilities the LCS was supposed to provide. Time to buy some ships from a foreign yard.

  • pawn

    The hydrogen leaks are Deja-Vu for me. I remember the summer of 1990 very well. I hope there’s still someone there that remembers what really happened.

    “Who ya gonna call?….”

  • Ray Van Dune

    Looking at this as part of the human-rating of this design, I would say that if they manage to get it off the ground and complete a mission, they will have done nothing more than demonstrate their own tenacity and resourcefulness in the face of a balky vehicle. Put humans in the next one?

    If it is impossible to pressure-cycle this vehicle more than a handful of times without almost certain failure, how can we compare it to the SpaceX Starship, designed to be re-flown dozens or more times? The build quality must be significantly lower. Again this system seems questionably certifiable for human use. Is one-flight use a band-aid for all flaws now?

  • BtB’s Original Mark

    Odd – That Kool-Aid that NASA was serving along with that SLS Test had a slightly bitter taste.

    I’m rooting for SpaceX to send a few Starships to orbit Mars before NASA has their first woman land on the Moon.

  • Ray Van Dune

    Listening to the NASA news conference, I make the following observations:
    1. Lots of self-congratulation.
    2. Lots of declarations of successful meeting of objectives.
    3. Lots of team focus, compared to almost invisibility of the team behind SpaceX launches.
    4. No final decision on whether another WDR will be required, but I would bet won’t be at this point, and August target date will stand.
    5. Firm assertion that there are plenty of pressurization cycles available (19).

    Overall, a celebratory, qualitative approach that only became more soberly quantitative in response to the journalist’s persistent questions. Strangely enough, when the NASA presenters finally put down the pom-poms and got down to specifics, they lapsed so far into acronym-speak that it often obscured the message.

    Remember the old saw about the football coach who admonished his team, “If you accidentally stumble into the end zone, try to act like you’ve been there before, okay?” It felt like these guys had made a hard-fought first-down, and started prematurely celebrating a Super Bowl win!

    Somebody needs to tell them a few things about where public support ultimately derives from. The contrast with a typical understated SpaceX PR event could not have been more profound.

  • Ray Van Dune: I increasingly do not bother listening or watching NASA press conferences, because the first 30 minutes are now routinely devoted to self-congratulations and propaganda. A waste of time. Even the Q&A has declined because NASA more and more allows questions from “social media”, which are carefully designed to either obscure or sell NASA.

    I can get better information from other sources, outside these official channels.

  • Ray Van Dune

    Bob, it has been a while since I last heard a NASA press conference, but I had a premonition that they would be anxious to control the message, so I wanted to hear them. Or perhaps I “took one for the team” is a shorter explanation?! Anyway, yes they are as insufferable as you say. I get the impression they all are afraid to be seen to do the team-praising thing less than the others, sort of like Stalin’s audiences being afraid to be the first to stop clapping!

    I found the media questions better than expected- there were no outright idiotic “feelings” questions, probably because the presenters spent so much time describing them already! Wow, you all clapped for yourselves at the end of the day? Amaaazing!

    The thing I did learn is that apparently the main core can handle 19 more re-pressurizations before turning into a rocket garden ornament. Maybe they have a chance after all.

    Elon says they will launch in July. How about a contest to predict who launches first, and by how many days?! I say SpaceX by 5!

  • Richard M

    At this point, I don’t question the dedication and zeal of NASA’s ground support team, or that they actually are making some sort of real progress in making this vehicle launchable. From what I’ve seen and heard, I am happy to stipulate to both (albeit stripped of some of the more enthusiastic language of NASA managers at today’s presser).

    What I do question is the architecture they’re forced to work with, which is going to hobble all efforts to to make this into an efficient and reliable enterprise, no matter how much dedication and zeal is thrown at it. Everyone here knows the drill: an unwieldy cost-plus procurement spread over as many contractors as possible, operated by a NASA team can’t know its hardware as well as its builders do and can’t easily or quickly make design improvements or corrections, far too expensive to launch at a cadence consistent with accepted safety norms, and all of it based on a hydrolox sustainer core that comes with all the handicaps of hydrolox learned so painfully during the Shuttle’s operational history.

    And there’s another problem that’s only becoming more ominous with each passing day: NASA cannot compete with the increasingly aggressive hiring of launch provider companies now underway, which will only further dilute an engineering pool that is already a pale shadow of the army of talent that made Apollo such a success. As Eric Berger tweeted today, “Multiple sources report, anecdotally, that Blue Origin is continuing to hire like crazy in Florida and elsewhere. They’re pulling a lot of people from NASA, and staffing up areas such as Project Jarvis. One consequence of the new space industry, which is flush with money, is that an intense competition for engineering and technical talent is pulling those people away from NASA. The space agency can’t compete with private company pay.”

  • Cloudy

    Even if this contraption blows up at the pad it may still not be in the critical path for the moon landing. If Spacex can’t get starship operational and at a steady launch cadence in time., their plan to refuel the lander in order cannot work. It usually takes several years after a first successful flight even for a conventional launch vehicle to launch at a predictable schedule. Most never make it that far and are used anyway for political and other considerations.. The bulk of the competitive launch market goes to the few rockets that can launch on time. The lander itself also has to be developed. My guess is we will not see a moon landing before 2028 and even that is highly optimistic. NASA did not choose between SLS and Starship. It does not have one as a backup for the other. Both need to succeed. Both need to launch on demand. The program depends on the slowest one.

  • Richard M

    It usually takes several years after a first successful flight even for a conventional launch vehicle to launch at a predictable schedule.

    If there’s any company that can defy industry norms, it’s SpaceX in 2022.

  • Ray Van Dune

    I am afraid that if we allow SLS to define the critical path back to the Moon, when we finally get there we will be greeted by Taikonauts. On the other hand, if we just let SpaceX off the leash, the roles will be revered!

  • Ray Van Dune


  • James Street

    NASA is one of the most closely monitored and effective government agencies.

  • John

    Is it wrong that I want to go to Florida for the earth shattering kaboom when they light this bad boy?

    Problem is with all the launch delays, I’d have to take too much time off.

    Can’t wait for launch month!

  • Col Beausabre

    John, I advise you to bring a shovel, helmet and a self-aid kit

  • “My guess is we will not see a moon landing before 2028 and even that is highly optimistic.”

    Bet taken. Any Moon landing by any Human counts. Of course, they have to exit the vehicle.

  • Ray Van Dune

    Having read the ka-boom question, I was trying to compare the SLS and the Space Shuttle noise-wise, when I realized that SLS is a lot simpler than the shuttle. One more RS-25 engine, same but larger HydroLOX tank, same SRBs but with one more segment, and a capsule rather than a huge spaceplane! Given that the shuttle was supposed to fly multiple times a year, how come SLS can only fly once, and costs so much more?

  • Jeff Wright

    Lori Garver-an SLS basher-is moments away from being on Coast-to-Coast AM. I think she hates Red State space jobs like Cowing. But now that Musk leans Republican-I wonder what her reaction will be.

  • Edward

    Cloudy wrote: “If Spacex can’t get starship operational and at a steady launch cadence in time., their plan to refuel the lander in order cannot work. It usually takes several years after a first successful flight even for a conventional launch vehicle to launch at a predictable schedule. Most never make it that far and are used anyway for political and other considerations..

    Last year, SpaceX showed that it could launch the Starship landing tests at a fairly regular cadence. SpaceX seems to have a plan for completing their objectives in a relatively short timespan. They seem to have been more successful with their landing tests than they expected, which left them behind the curve with the construction of their orbital launch pad. Regulatory troubles (tank farm and environmental review) have hampered the launchpad schedule, This has allowed them to skip over a few test articles for a plan to test more developed units.

    A problem that I see for them, right now, is that they are building a launchpad at Kennedy without practical launch experience at Boca Chica, so they cannot be certain that there will be no surprise lessons-learned that will cause design changes to their Kennedy site.

    Richard M quoted Eric Berger: “‘The space agency can’t compete with private company pay.’

    NASA’s pay may not be the only problem that they have. The private companies are doing many of the exciting things that, four decades ago, we thought would be done by using the Space Shuttle. I am disappointed that my career in the space industry was not as exciting as I had expected, because the Space Shuttle had failed to launch as often or inexpensively as we had expected, back then. This limited the things we could accomplish in space. It turned out that instead of being born in the right generation for what I wanted to do with space, I was born two generations too early. At least I got to see the Moon landings in real time.

    Despite the ISS, I am one engineer who thinks we lost four decades of space accomplishments.

    NASA’s engineers, technicians, and scientists may be thinking that commercial space will do what they, too, had expected to do, back when they joined NASA.

    Scientists and engineers don’t always get into these fields for the money, otherwise we would have become doctors or lawyers or corporate executives. We get into it to be in on the “bleeding edge” of technological development, which was once done at NASA, but now that Congress designed a 1960s rocket and manned capsule for NASA’s future, it is clear that commercial space companies are leading that developmental edge.

    If the scientists and engineers can’t get a career at JPL, which is still creative and innovative, then getting career at the rest of NASA is not the adventure it once was. We have Congress’s misuse and mismanagement of NASA to thank for that.

    Jeff Wright wrote: “But now that Musk leans Republican …

    Musk does not lean Republican. He leans 2005 Democratic Party. It is just that since that year the Democrats have run so fast and so far to the left that, to them, even Stalin seems far right radical. This is why so many people have mistaken Trump, and now Musk, as Republican conservatives. The truth is that Musk and Trump merely remained stationary while their political party chased after rainbows, unicorns, and Utopia only to find shortages, stagflation, and injustice, just like every other Marxist government.

  • JhonB

    Bob, you have to read the new book by Lori Garver. I have not read it yet, but it seems to back up everything you say about NASA.

  • JhonB: Nope, haven’t read it yet. Though I ask, why should you be surprised if she confirms everything I have been saying about NASA — and the government in general?

    The evidence of widespread incompetence and corruption at all levels of government has been as plain as the sun in the sky for nigh on thirty years. The real story is the refusal of so many to see it.

  • JhonB

    Bob, if you get a minute, read this article. If I did not know better, I would think you wrote this book and had to publish it under a woman’s pen name because of quotas and would only publish female authors . (G)

  • JhonB: I read it earlier this morning. What I find amusing is Garver’s overall politics. She was a true-blue Democrat Party operative, which how she got the job at NASA. Her hatred of the Republicans and love of the Clintons and Obama was something to behold when I sat with her during one banquet event back around 2004.

    I wonder now if her political allegiances now might be changing, same as Musk’s.

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