Engineering is failing, and failing better, until you reach the moon.
So it goes for the inaugural launch of NASA's novel Space Launch System (SLS), slated to fly humans to the moon and possibly beyond, which was just delayed by the agency, according to a recent statement from the agency.
And now it looks like NASA's initial launch window of Feb. 12 to Feb. 27 will be delayed, possibly until March or April 2022.
NASA's next launch window needs a sunny splashdown
The delay came when SLS engineers decided a replacement controller was needed for engine four in the SLS's core stage, after one of the two redundant controller channels failed its power-up process amid tests of the entire rocket, currently poised at the Kennedy Space Center. But the same controller worked as expected during the Green Run test of the core stage at the Stennis Space Center, which ended with a full-duration static-fire test in March. But, now defunct, NASA said it will replace the faulty engine controller, and return "the rocket to full functionality and redundancy while continuing to investigate and identify a root cause."
Sadly, no official timeline was shared about this replacement work, but NASA was unequivocal that this ruins the possibility of launch in February. "NASA is developing a plan and updated schedule to replace the engine controller while continuing integrated testing and reviewing launch opportunities in March and April," read the statement. Back in October, the agency had said that, should the Feb. window fail, other launch windows existed from March 12 to March 27, and then again from April 8 to April 23. These are specifically linked to the SLS' performance and mission requirements, like guaranteeing that the Orion spacecraft splashes down in daylight conditions.
SpaceX could quickly steal the 'most powerful rocket' title from NASA's SLS
While this delay is a let-down for many, there were also doubts surrounding the likelihood that SLS would hit its target launch window in February before the computer glitch. But before the eventual liftoff of NASA's SLS, the vehicle will be rolled out to Launch Complex 39B for further tests, which include a wet dress rehearsal, where liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen is pumped into the vehicle, and a practice countdown is executed (but stopped just before a real ignition happens). This rollout needed to go down by the end of December 2021 for the February launch to happen, but on Dec. 10, NASA had already said the program aimed for a mid-Jan. rollout, reports Space News.
Combined with the 74,000-lb (33.5-metric-ton) Orion spacecraft, the "fully-stacked" SLS is at present undergoing integrated testing inside NASA's Vehicle Assembly Building, in Kennedy Space Center, Florida. And if the wet dress rehearsal goes well, the actual launch will see the first uncrewed Artemis 1 mission fly to the moon and back, kicking off the first major leg of Space Race 2.0. But with the recent testing glitch, we'll have to wait just a little longer — again. But once everything passes the tests, the world's most powerful rocket will launch into Florida's skies. While this is noteworthy, more exciting is the high probability that the title of most powerful rocket will quickly be snatched away by SpaceX's fully stacked Starship, since it's also slated for first flight in 2022. Despite repeated delays across the industry, NASA and its private-public partners are tremendously close to taking humans farther than they've ever gone before.