How SLS reveals the difference between state-run propaganda and real journalism

The cost of SLS

On August 29, 2022, NASA will attempt the first launch of a government-built, government-owned, and government-designed rocket in more than a decade. The rocket’s development took more than eighteen years, moved in fits and starts due to political interference and mandates, cost more than $50 billion, and has been both behind schedule and overbudget almost from day one. Along the way NASA management screwed up the construction of one multi-million dollar test stand, built another it will never use, mismanaged that test program, dropped a rocket oxygen tank, and found structural cracks in an early Orion capsule.

This dubious achievement, even if the launch and month-plus-long mission of the Orion capsule to lunar orbit and back is a complete success, is hardly something to tout. NASA claims it and this rocket will make it possible for America to explore the solar system, but any honest appraisal of SLS’s cost and cumbersome design immediately reveals that claim to be absurd. SLS can launch at best once per year, and in truth will likely lift off at a much slower rate. It will also eat up resources in the American aerospace industry from technology better designed, more efficient, and more capable of doing the job.

Worse, the generally sloppy management of this program, with numerous major errors in design and construction, raises serious questions about the safety of any future manned flight.

And yet, as this launch day approaches, the American established press is going ga-ga over SLS. Below are just a small sampling:
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NASA lists 13 candidate landing sites for Artemis-3 manned mission

Candidate landing sites for Artemis-3
Click for original image.

NASA yesterday revealed its first preliminary list of thirteen candidate landing sites for the Artemis-3 manned mission, the first manned mission the agency wants to send to the Moon in 2026.

The image to the right, reduced, enhanced, and annotated by me to post here, shows these thirteen zones in blue. I have added the red dot to mark what I understand to be the planned landing zone of Viper, an unmanned rover that NASA hopes to launch by ’23 at the latest. From the press release:

The team identified regions that can fulfill the moonwalk objective by ensuring proximity to permanently shadowed regions, and also factored in other lighting conditions. All 13 regions contain sites that provide continuous access to sunlight throughout a 6.5-day period – the planned duration of the Artemis III surface mission. Access to sunlight is critical for a long-term stay at the Moon because it provides a power source and minimizes temperature variations.

Note that this mission will land a Starship with crew at this South Pole region. That spacecraft’s large payload capacity likely means that it could conceivably leave behind supplementary supplies for a follow-up next mission, and thus speed up development of the first lunar base.

August 18, 2022 Quick space links

As stringer Jay correctly noted to me in an email today, “Slow news day.” None of the stories below merit a full post, even though they are pretty much all of today’s space news.

SLS arrives at launchpad

The Space Launch System rocket (SLS) that will fly on NASA’s first test launch of this rocket on August 29, 2022 has finally arrived at its launchpad, seven years late and about $20 billion overbudget.

In the coming days, engineers and technicians will configure systems at the pad for launch, which is currently targeted for no earlier than Aug. 29 at 8:33 a.m. (two hour launch window). Teams have worked to refine operations and procedures and have incorporated lessons learned from the wet dress rehearsal test campaign and have updated the launch timeline accordingly.

The rollout from the Vehicle Assembly Building took ten hours.

August 15, 2022 Quick space links

From Jay, BtB’s stringer:

NASA sets tentative launch date for SLS

NASA yesterday announced that it is targeting August 29, 2022 for the first unmanned launch of its SLS rocket.

NASA is tentatively targeting Aug. 29 for the long-awaited maiden flight of the agency’s huge Space Launch System moon rocket, officials said Wednesday. But they cautioned major challenges remain for the oft-delayed rocket and an official date will not be set until later.

As it stands, the launch processing schedule is extremely tight and depends on successful checkout of a repaired hydrogen line fitting, good results from end-to-end pre-flight checks of the rocket’s myriad other systems and getting everything done in time to haul it back out to the launch pad by around Aug. 18.

If any delays occur, this launch window extends until September 6th. If they can’t make that date, the next launch window opens on September 19th.

The mission, to send the Orion capsule around the Moon and back, would last 42 days and if launched as planned would return October 10th.

The announcement also slipped in this tidbit:

If the initial test flight goes well, NASA plans to launch four astronauts atop the second SLS rocket for an around-the-moon shakedown flight in 2024 — Artemis 2 — before sending the first woman and the first person of color to a landing near the moon’s south pole in 2025 or 2026 as part of the Artemis 3 mission. [emphasis mine]

This I think is the first time NASA officials have hinted that the launch might be delayed to ’26. It is no surprise, but as they have always done with SLS, they give these hints softly, prepping the press so that it doesn’t make news.

As for the disgraceful unseemly focus on race and sex, it appears that NASA is now an apartheid state. The make-up of missions will no longer be determined by skill and experience, but by ethnic considerations, with favoritism always given to minorities or women.

NASA now targeting late August launch of SLS

NASA officials today confirmed that they are satisfied with the results from this week’s incomplete dress rehearsal countdown of the SLS rocket, and are targeting a late August launch of SLS.

NASA officials have reviewed the data collected during the test run and decided that a leaky hydrogen valve was not significant enough to force a delay in the launch of Artemis I, an uncrewed mission planning to orbit the moon and return to Earth. It’s the first step toward putting humans back on the moon for the first time since Apollo 17 in 1972.

“The team is now ready to take the next step and prepare for launch,” said NASA’s deputy associate administrator Tom Whitmeyer.

NASA officials said they will roll the massive Space Launch System rocket back to the Vehicle Assembly Building, where the valve’s faulty seal will be replaced. Rollback is slated for Friday July 1, though weather concerns could push that back.

SLS won the five-plus year race with the Webb telescope on which would have the most delays and launch last. Now the race will be between SLS and SpaceX’s Starship/Superheavy. Which will launch first this summer? In a rational world, SLS should win hands down. It has been in development since 2004, while Starship only began design work in 2017.

This is not a rational world, however, and SLS’s long gestation had little to do with designing a rocket and everything to do with politics and a corrupt Congress and an incompetent NASA. The rocket that has come out of this is thus difficult to operate and incredibly cumbersome. Its components have also not been tested thoroughly.

SpaceX meanwhile has been designing and building its heavy-lift rocket with only one goal: the rocket must be efficient to operate.

I predict Starship will reach orbit first, though if it doesn’t it most likely will be because SpaceX finds it needs to do more ground tests and revisions, not because SLS has surged ahead. And regardless, Starship will likely fly many times in the next three years, while SLS will only get off the ground once.

More important, the chances of SLS and Orion working perfectly throughout that that lunar orbit mission seem almost impossible, based on track record during the past eighteen years of both programs. Expect some issues to crop up, first during the launch countdown, forcing several scrubs, and then during the mission itself. None might be mortal, but all will raise questions whether it would be wise to put humans on this rocket and capsule on its next flight, and attempt to take them to the Moon.

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.

SLS dress rehearsal countdown continues, though T-0 delayed two hours

The SLS dress rehearsal countdown is proceeding today as planned, though the countdown’s end at T-0 is now 4:38 pm (eastern), two hours later than previously announced.

Apparently they have delayed T-0 from the beginning of the two-hour simulated launch window to its end. This decision so early in the count suggests the launch team wants to give itself extra time either to deal with some issue that has come up that they haven’t told us about yet, or to give themselves more time in case some issue should come up.

SLS dress rehearsal countdown begins

NASA engineers began their fourth attempt to complete a full dress rehearsal countdown of the SLS rocket yesterday, with everything proceeding so far as planned.

Overnight, engineers powered up the Orion spacecraft and the Space Launch System’s core stage. Teams also configured several systems on the ground, rocket, and spacecraft and performed activities to prepare umbilicals that connect the rocket and spacecraft to the mobile launcher and are used to provide power, communications, coolant, and propellant.

Actual fueling begins tomorrow, when the countdown is supposed to conclude at T-0 at 2:40 pm (Eastern).

NASA live stream is available here.

SLS dress rehearsal countdown set for June 20th with launch delayed again

According to NASA officials, the next attempt to complete a dress rehearsal countdown for its SLS rocket will take place on June 20, 2022, with the earliest date an actual launch can occur delayed again, and now set at best for an August 23 to September 6 window.

The article also notes that during a different press conference, NASA administrator Bill Nelson hinted that “there could be slips” in the present target date of ‘2025 for landing humans on the Moon.

Ya think? I guarantee that NASA will not land humans on the Moon in ’25, at least not using SLS. Based on all the issues confronting SLS, as well as NASA’s normal way of doing things, this mission will certainly slip at least one to two more years. And I am being very very very very optimistic.

We must also note that when first proposed by Bush Jr. in 2004, he predicted a NASA manned lunar landing by 2015, which means this launch will be at least one decade behind schedule, with it more likely being later than that.

But then, I can hear our glorious president yelling at me for complaining. “C’mon man! What’s a decade or two when you’re scheduling something important?”

SLS’s 2nd mobile launcher to cost more than $1.5 billion, 3x what was initially budgeted

SLS's two mobile launchers, costing $1 billion
NASA’s bloated SLS mobile launchers

According to an inspector general report [pdf] released today, the second mobile launcher being built by the company Bechtel to transport its SLS rocket from the assembly building to the launch site is likely going to cost more than $1.5 billion, three times what was initially budgeted, and will not be completed any earlier than the end of 2027, four years behind schedule.

Compounding Bechtel’s projected cost increases and schedule delays, an ML-2 [mobile launcher-2] project analysis provided only a 3.9 percent confidence level that the nearly $1 billion cost [twice the original budget] and October 2025 [2.5 years late] delivery estimates were accurate. NASA requires projects to develop budgets and schedules consistent with a 70 percent joint cost and schedule confidence level (JCL), meaning a 70 percent likelihood the project will finish equal to or less than the planned costs and schedule. In fact, an Independent Review Team analysis determined the project would require an additional $447 million and 27 months, for a total contract value of $1.5 billion and a launcher delivery date of December 2027—a schedule that would enable an Artemis IV launch no earlier than the end of 2028.

The first mobile launcher, shown on the left in the graphic, cost more than $1 billion and will used only three times, at most. The second, on the right, is required for all of the assigned interplanetary tasks being given to the full size version of SLS beyond those first three test flights. Without it that version of SLS cannot launch. And even if the launcher is ready by 2028, as the IG report suggests, that will be more than a decade behind schedule, and six years from now.
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SLS next dress rehearsal countdown scheduled for June 19th

NASA has now scheduled the next dress rehearsal countdown for its SLS rocket for around June 19th, with the rocket beginning its trip to the launch site on June 6th.

It appears the issues that prevented the completion of the dress rehearsal in April have all been addressed:

While inside the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB), teams completed several major objectives, including assessing the liquid hydrogen system leak at the tail service mast umbilical, replacing the interim cryogenic propulsion stage (ICPS) gaseous helium system check valve and support hardware, and modifying the ICPS umbilical purge boots. The addition of hazardous gas detectors above the upper stage allows for additional visibility into any potential leaks during cryogenic operations.

Other than the rollout on June 6th, all future dates remain flexible, depending on what happens step-by-step.

SpaceX seeking another $1.725 billion in investment capital

Capitalism in space: SpaceX has begun another private funding round, now asking for $1.725 billion in new investment capital.

The space venture is looking to bring in up to $1.725 billion in new capital, at a price of $70 per share, according to a company-wide email on Friday obtained by CNBC. Notably, SpaceX split its stock price 10-for-1 in February, which reduced the common stock to $56 a share – with the new valuation representing a 25% increase.

When added to past funding rounds — and including the $2.9 billion provided by NASA for turning Starship into a manned lunar lander — SpaceX will have raised approximately $12 billion total for building Starship.

Sounds like a lot, doesn’t it? Well, compared to what NASA has spent for its expendable SLS rocket (about $60 billion), $12 billion is chicken feed, especially because Starship will not be expendable, but entirely reusable.

If this contrast doesn’t illustrate the strength of freedom, competition, and private enterprise over government, I don’t know what does. Government, not caring about making a profit, produces a disposable rocket costing many billions, and takes two decades to do it. Private enterprise in comparison also wants a big rocket, but it also doesn’t look kindly on throwing away its investment with each launch. It instead insists the cost to build it be constrained, as well as the time to do it.

The result: Government accomplishes little and wastes a lot. Private enterprise makes it happen, and quickly for a reasonable cost.

NASA announces new possible launch dates for first SLS launch

NASA on May 16th announced the new possible launch dates for first SLS launch, outlining potential launch windows through the first half of 2023, with the first at the end of July 2022.

The calendar of launch windows through June of ’23 can be viewed here [pdf].

The July 26th to August 10th window is the one the agency is clearly targeting for that first launch, but it will not confirm this until after SLS successfully completes the next dress rehearsal countdown attempt in June. That the agency is now showing us potential launch dates in ’23 also suggests it is anticipating the possibility the launch could be delayed that much, especially if it determines it must replace the SLS’s two solid rocket boosters because they have been stacked unused for too long.

SLS was initially planned for a launch in 2015. It is now seven-plus years behind schedule, which is how long it took SpaceX to go from a blank sheet of paper to launching its Falcon Heavy for the first time.

SLS launch delayed until August, at the earliest

In describing its plans for doing a second dress rehearsal countdown of its SLS rocket in June, NASA officials yesterday noted that they have delayed the actual launch until an August launch window so they will have time to do a third dress rehearsal before that launch.

But Free warned the issues are complex and it’s possible more than one tanking test will be required to thoroughly test the complex systems in the SLS rocket and their interaction with the ground systems that provide propellants, power and other critical elements. He said the August launch windows would “allow us to do two wet dress rehearsal attempts if we need them.”

“We are optimistic that we only need one more based on everything we’ve been able to do thus far to fine tune our tanking procedures,” he said. “But we also want to be realistic and upfront with you that it may take more than one attempt to get the procedures where we need them.”

According to this SpacePolicyOnline report, NASA has also mapped out additional launch windows for September through December.

In reviewing every news story about yesterday’s press conference, I could not find any that asked the agency about the status of SLS’s two solid rocket strap-on boosters. Both have now been stacked for more than seventeen months, and by August will have been stacked for twenty months, eight months past NASA’s use-by rule of one year. Either the past rules were too conservative, or NASA is simply ignoring the possibility that those boosters might no longer be viable. In either case, it is disappointing no reporter asked about this.

NASA to conduct second SLS launch dress rehearsal in June

In announcing a press conference later today about the status of NASA’s SLS rocket, the agency revealed it now plans to conduct a second SLS launch dress rehearsal in June.

NASA’s SLS rocket and Orion spacecraft arrived back at Kennedy’s Vehicle Assembly Building April 26 after a 10-hour journey from launch pad 39B. Since their arrival, teams have worked to replace a faulty upper stage check valve and repair a small leak within the tail service mast umbilical ground plate housing. The teams also have been performing additional checkouts while the spaceport’s supplier of gaseous nitrogen makes upgrades to their pipeline configuration to support Artemis I activities.

We will likely find out NASA’s new launch schedule for the rocket today.

SLS rocket rolled back to VAB

NASA’s SLS rocket has now been rolled back to the vehicle assembly building (VAB) so that engineers can assess the various problems that prevented the agency from completing a full dress rehearsal countdown last week.

Over the next several days, the team will extend the work platforms to allow access to SLS and Orion. In the coming weeks, teams will work on replacing a faulty upper stage check valve and a small leak within the tail service mast umbilical ground plate housing, and perform additional checkouts before returning to the launch pad for the next wet dress rehearsal attempt.

More details about these problems can be found here.

The bottom line is that these engineering fixes are certain to take at least two months to fix. Then NASA must decide what next to do. If it decides to redo the dress rehearsal countdown, then an actual launch cannot happen sooner than July, and only if they proceed directly to launch after completing the rehearsal. If the rocket is rolled back to the VAB after the next rehearsal the launch will be delayed further, into August or September.

And all that assumes the next rehearsal goes perfect, something that seems unlikely based on what has happened so far.

The delays are a problem because the first stage’s two strap-on solid rocket boosters are already well past their “use-by” date of January ’22. The possibility that NASA will have to unstack this rocket and replace these boosters is growing. If that happens the launch cannot occur sooner than early ’23, if then.

Worse, these delays cause all other subsequent SLS launches to be delayed as well. Right now the manned mission to the Moon, presently scheduled for ’25, is likely going to be pushed back to ’26.

SLS launch now definitely delayed until July, at the earliest

NASA yesterday admitted that with the decision to return SLS to the vehicle assembly building (VAB) before completing its dress rehearsal countdown, it is now impossible to launch SLS in the June launch window as planned, and that the earliest the rocket could launch would be July.

This summary of the issues that dogged the rocket during the three attempts to complete that dress rehearsal illustrates the likelihood that SLS has many engineering loose ends still unresolved:

On April 3 it was malfunctioning fans on the Mobile Launcher needed to clear hazardous fumes. On April 4, it was a defective helium check valve on the Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage, ICPS, the Space Launch System’s second stage. On April 14, it was a hydrogen leak on the SLS first stage, or Core Stage.

Once again, having such problems during the first countdown of a new rocket is not unusual. What is questionable is only finding them now, at the very end of the rocket’s development.

I predict the launch will be further delayed until the fall, at which time NASA might face a much more serious issue regarding SLS’s two strap-on solid rocket boosters. During the shuttle era NASA had always placed a one year limit on their use once they were stacked, because it was believed that standing in a vertical position for too long could warp and distort the solid rocket fuel, thus causing it to burn improperly during launch.

These boosters were first stacked near the end of 2020, so their use-by date should have been January 2022, at the latest. Not launching until the fall will place them nine to eleven months past that date. And since these boosters are taller than the one’s used by the shuttle, they are heavier which makes extending that lifespan even riskier.

Thus, if NASA decides it must replace the boosters, that will likely delay the launch another three to six months, pushing it into ’23 at the earliest. If NASA decides to go with these boosters, it poses a real risk of failure during launch, a failure that will certainly destroy the rocket.

NASA abandons 4th attempt to complete SLS dress rehearsal countdown

UPDATE: NASA today decided to scrub a fourth attempt to complete a full dress rehearsal countdown of its SLS rocket on April 21 later this week, and roll the rocket back to the vehicle assembly building (VAB).

NASA said that its contractors, as well as its agency’s, will use the next several weeks to address problems that cropped up during the fueling tests when the SLS rocket returns to the large Vehicle Assembly Building. For example, gaseous nitrogen system supplier Air Liquide will upgrade its capabilities. NASA will also replace a faulty check valve on the upper stage of the rocket, as well as fix a leak on the mobile launch tower’s “tail service mast umbilical,” a 10-meter-tall structure that provides propellant and electricity lines to the rocket on the pad.

This situation is increasingly becoming a big problem for NASA, and the SLS rocket. After returning it to the VAB it will take several weeks to address the issues that caused the aborts on the previous attempts. If the agency then repeats the wet dress rehearsal to make sure all is well and then returns the rocket again to the VAB, it would delay the actual launch to late summer or early fall. At that point the two strap-on solid rocket boosters will have been stacked almost two years, almost twice as long as they are supposed to before launch.

The agency could attempt to roll out the rocket for a dress rehearsal, and then proceed directly to launch. That would allow the possibility of a launch in the early summer, but for that plan to work everything must work perfectly.

The many problems during the dress rehearsal were in themselves not bad marks against the rocket or program. This was a test to iron out kinks in the launch procedures, and such issues should be expected. The real problem is that these kinks during launch countdown are being worked out now, at the very end of development, rather at the beginning. They suggest that the rocket has a lot of engineering loose ends that were not thoroughly tested and worked out in development, thus increasing the likelihood of a complete failure during actual launch.

This rocket was first conceived in 2004. Its development, in fits and starts, has now been on-going for 18 years. The total cost exceeds $30 billion (not including the $20 billion or so spent on the Orion capsule). That it is not ready to launch is a striking condemnation of our entire government. The rocket was designed by Congress, and NASA’s program to build it has been costly, slow, and poorly managed, from the beginning.

As I wrote in 2011, it should have been scrapped more than a decade ago, replaced with rockets from the private sector. Had our incompetent federal government done that we would likely be launching humans to the Moon, now, and saved a lot of money in the process.

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NASA has now scheduled for no earlier than April 21, 2022 its fourth attempt to complete a SLS dress rehearsal countdown, stymied the last time by a hydrogen fuel leak.

Each delay puts further pressure on the agency’s hope of launching in June. And each launch delay puts the rocket’s solid rocket boosters farther and farther past their use-by date that officially arrived in January.

Third SLS dress rehearsal countdown scrubbed before completion

NASA engineers today scrubbed their third attempt to complete a dress rehearsal countdown of the agency’s giant SLS rocket when a leak was detected in a hydrogen fuel line.

The team will not conduct the terminal countdown activities today as planned and will assess next steps after today’s operations.

The problem appears to be “a leak … in the tail service mast umbilical.”

It is not clear yet how much of the countdown and fueling will be completed. Because of a faulty valve in the upper stage, NASA management had already decided to eliminate fueling of the rocket’s upper stage from the rehearsal. The problem today appears to involve the core first stage’s hydrogen tanks, which are presently partly filled only about 5%. Based on their last tweet, it appears they have not drained the tank, though they apparently will not continue the rehearsal today.

UPDATE: NASA just tweeted the following:

Teams have confirmed they have satisfied the test objectives for the ICPS [upper stage] LH2 [hydrogen tank] chilldown and after gathering additional data, will work to drain propellant from the rocket. They will inspect the TSMU umbilical connection, review data, and establish a go-forward plan.

This sounds as if the agency might decide they have completed enough of the dress rehearsal to consider it complete, and will now roll the rocket back to the vehicle assembly building for further check out.

NASA will not load fuels in SLS upper stage in next dress rehearsal countdown attempt

In the next attempt to complete the first “wet dress rehearsal” of NASA’s SLS rocket tomorrow, April 11th, the dress rehearsal will not be as wet as originally planned.

NASA said April 7 that engineers found a problem maintain helium purge pressure in the ICPS [SLS’s upper stage] after changing out a regulator in the mobile launch platform. At that time, the agency said it was able to restore normal pressure but was still studying the source of the problem, now linked to the faulty valve in the ICPS itself.

Because that issue, NASA now plans to limit the amount of liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen propellant loaded into the ICPS during the WDR. NASA said the countdown rehearsal will be modified with “minimal propellant operations” on the ICPS, but didn’t elaborate on how much propellant would be transferred into the upper stage.

As usual, NASA officials are now making believe that they will achieve all their goals for the dress rehearsal if they complete it without completely fueling the upper stage. This is intellectually dishonest. This dress rehearsal was intended to test all aspects of the rocket’s launch countdown, including the fueling of all its stages. If they complete it without successfully fueling the upper stage, they will not achieve all their goals. Period.

The plan right now is to attempt this revised launch rehearsal tomorrow, then return the rocket to the vehicle assembly building where engineers will replace the faulty valve. At that point it is unclear what the agency will do next.

Though this incomplete test will have taught them a lot, if they do not redo the dress rehearsal with full loading of all stages but instead proceed to a launch attempt in the present target window from June 6 to June 16, they will be doing so with a greater risk. Of course, if the new valve works during that launch attempt, then all should be well. In fact, this risk appears quite reasonable.

Nonetheless, the fundamental problem remains: NASA is under pressure to launch, and held off this kind of testing until very late in the program. Finding these problems now puts serious limits on the ability of the agency to fix them. This in turn puts serious limits on the reliability of SLS.

NASA postpones next SLS dress rehearsal countdown attempt to next week

NASA officials today said that they have postponed their next attempt to complete the first dress rehearsal countdown of the SLS unitl next week, thus allowing the private commercial manned Axiom launch to ISS to proceed on April 8th.

The rocket will remain at the launch site as the engineering teams assess the issues that caused two scrubs and several launch count down holds.

SLS dress rehearsal countdown scrubbed an hour before T-0

Yesterday’s first dress rehearsal countdown for NASA’s SLS rocket managed to get within an hour of T-0 with its oxygen tanks half full when mission control scrubbed the countdown.

During chilldown of the lines in preparation for loading the liquid hydrogen, the teams encountered an issue with a panel on the mobile launcher that controls the core stage vent valve. The purpose of the vent valve is to relieve pressure from the core stage during tanking. Given the time to resolve the issue as teams were nearing the end of their shifts, the launch director made the call to stop the test for the day. A crew will investigate the issue at the pad, and the team will review range availability and the time needed to turn systems around before making a determination on the path forward.

No word as yet when they will attempt the next full dress rehearsal. The delays with SLS have so far caused several further delays for Axiom’s private mission to ISS, since NASA has given SLS priority over the range. It has now been pushed back to April 8th.

Note that none of these problems should be a surprise. This is the first time the rocket and mobile launcher have been placed under flight conditions, so minor issues should be expected. At the same time, dealing with these issues now, just before actual launch, rather than earlier in development, illustrates the backwards way NASA’s management has run this program. You can never design anything new perfectly. You need to test and fail and fix along the way. NASA avoids testing because it can’t build anything at a reasonable cost. The result is that when it comes time to launch, lots of previously unidentified minor issues pop up that need fixing.

NASA aborts fueling in SLS dress rehearsal countdown

UPDATE: Dress rehearsal countdown to resume, now aiming for a 2:40 pm (Eastern) T-0 tomorrow, April 4th.

NASA announced this morning that it has aborted fueling in SLS dress rehearsal countdown because of a problem with the rocket’s mobile launcher.

Teams have decided to scrub tanking operations for the wet dress rehearsal due to loss of ability to pressurize the mobile launcher. The fans are needed to provide positive pressure to the enclosed areas within the mobile launcher and keep out hazardous gases. Technicians are unable to safely proceed with loading the propellants into the rocket’s core stage and interim cryogenic propulsion stage without this capability.

It appears engineers are assessing the issue and hope to resume the countdown so as to proceed with rocket fueling tomorrow.

SLS dress rehearsal begins, with press coverage limited by NASA

NASA today began the two-day-long “wet dress rehearsal” countdown of its first SLS rocket, with T-0 expected to occur at 2:40 pm (Eastern) on April 3rd.

The article at the link provides all the information you could want about this rocket, which is now about seven years behind schedule and having a cost so far about $25 billion. This quote however tells us much about the mentality at NASA:

But much of the test will happen without independent press coverage. NASA plans to provide sanctioned updates on the two-day dress rehearsal via the agency’s website and social media accounts, but news media representatives are not being permitted to listen to the countdown activities.

NASA has cited security and export control restrictions for the move. Numerous media representatives requested access to the SLS countdown audio for the wet dress rehearsal. Launch countdown audio feeds for other U.S. rockets, including those developed by private companies and hauling sensitive U.S. military satellites into orbit, are widely available to the news media and the public.

…NASA plans to release only text updates through the weekend. NASA TV will not be airing any live commentary for the final hours of the practice countdown. The agency’s television channel has previously provided live coverage of similar events, such as space shuttle tanking tests. [emphasis mine]

NASA reasons for not allowing anyone to listen to its audio feed — “security and export control restrictions” — is an utter lie. The real reason is that NASA fears the public’s reaction should anything not go exactly as planned. By blocking access to the audio feed, they can hide any faux pas.

NASA’s fear of course is misplaced. This is a test. No one will be surprised or outraged if it doesn’t go perfectly. Better to be open and up front than try to hide problems, because eventually those problems will be revealed and the cover-up will do far more harm to NASA’s reputation than the problems themselves.

The many new private rocket companies, SpaceX, Rocket Lab, Astra, Virgin Orbit, understand this, which is why they all make their primary countdown audio feeds available, though of course they almost certainly have secondary private feeds where engineers can speak more freely. Similarly, NASA did the same in the 1960s, and then during the entire shuttle program.

Now however “export control restrictions” and “security” requires them to be secretive? It is to laugh.

SLS arrives at launch site

NASA’s SLS rocket finally arrived at its launch site early this morning after an 11 hour journey on its mobile launcher from the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB), in preparation for a dress rehearsal countdown on April 3, 2022.

The approximately two-day test will demonstrate the team’s ability to load cryogenic, or super-cold, propellants into the rocket, conduct a launch countdown, and practice safely removing propellants at the launch pad. After wet dress rehearsal, engineers will roll the rocket and spacecraft back to the Vehicle Assembly Building for final checkouts before launch.

The launch is presently scheduled for late May, but we must not be surprised if it is delayed to June, or July.

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