'We don't know what we don't know': an undetermined issue cuts NASA's Hot Fire Test short

Saturday's test was set to the culmination of the Green Run test at Stennis Space Center in Mississippi.

Posted: Jan 17, 2021 12:19 AM

After being announced nearly a decade ago, NASA's Space Launch System (SLS) was set for its biggest test to date on Saturday.

The SLS Core Stage that was tested will become a part of the Artemis I rocket, which will launch an uncrewed Orion capsule to orbit the Moon before returning to Earth.

NASA conducts the Hot Fire Test down at Stennis Space Center near Bay St. Louis, Mississippi on Saturday, January 16, 2021. (Courtesy: NASA) NASA conducts the Hot Fire Test down at Stennis Space Center near Bay St. Louis, Mississippi on Saturday, January 16, 2021. (Courtesy: NASA)

Shortly before 4:30 p.m. under a clear, Mississippi sky, the four RS-25 engines beneath Core Stage 1 roared to life. The thunder and exhaust billowed out of the B-2 Test Stand near Bay St. Louis for about 60 seconds -- about an eighth of its planned testing time -- before it came to a halt. 

During the feed, someone in the control room broadcast during the NASA TV stream that there was an "MCF" (main component failure) on one of the engines, which was later identified as engine four by John Honeycutt, the SLS program manager at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville.

"When I left the team a little while ago, they were still beginning to pour through the data and we will continue to do that over the next several days," Honeycutt said.

What happened?

Honeycutt said around he 60 second mark, there was a flash that occurred around engine four that caused some damage to a thermal protection blanket. Honeycutt said there was a lot happening at that moment, so it will take time to piece together what actually happened.

"To highlight some of those, you got engine start up, which was successful, power up to 109 percent, throttle back to 95 percent, then throttle back up to 109. And all of that occurred about the same time that we're doing the engine gimbal profile," Honeycutt said.

Saturday's Hot Fire Test was the culmination of NASA's Green Run test, a series of eight tests of the core stage flight hardware, which began a year ago. 

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said in a post-test press conference that they will have to figure out what went awry before knowing if a second Hot Fire Test will be necessary.

"It depends what the anomaly was and how challenging it's going to be to fix it and we've got a lot to learn to figure that out," Bridenstine said.

"So, it very well could be that it's something that's easily fixable and we could feel confident going down to the Cape and staying on schedule. It's also true that we could find a challenge that's going to take more time."

Prior to Saturday's test, NASA Deputy Administrator James Morhard told WAAY 31 News that if they were able to reach 250 seconds worth of engine firing. 

"The engineering data we need is going to be provided in the first 250 seconds. So, we could call it a day if we got that far," Morhard said. 

Despite the setbacks, Bridenstine said he was proud of the NASA team and kept and optimistic tone during his closing remarks.

"This was a successful day. We didn't get everything we wanted and we're going to have to learn and make adjustments, but again, this is a test and this is why we test," Bridenstine said.

What comes next?

Engineers at Marshall Space Flight Center will continue to comb through the data gathered and determine what went wrong and what needs to be remedied. 

If another Hot Fire Test is deemed necessary, Honeyfutt said it would take between 21 and 30 days to prepare the engines. Stennis Space Center Director Richard Gilbrech said his team would need at least four or five days to reset everything on their end.

Both Bridenstine and Morhard said they plan to step down once the Biden Administration begins. With a new, Democrat-controlled Congress coming along with it, Alabama Senator Richard Shelby, a big proponent of the SLS program, will lose his position as chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, which sets NASA's budget. 

Morhard told WAAY 31 News he was confident that even with a new Congress and President coming into power this coming week, the Artemis program will be allowed to continue on its current path and with the funding they are requesting.

"Honestly I know Joe Biden. He's a really good guy and this will work out. They will see the need, as we have. This is about, honestly, who leads in space will lead the world and they will come to the same conclusions we did and I'm sure they will," Morhard said.

The big, outstanding questions is will Artemis I take off in 2021. Morhard said earlier on Saturday that NASA was still very much on track to launch Artemis I in November. But with the test yielding far less data than anticipated, Bridenstine said he cannot say for sure what will happen.

"I think it's still too early to tell. I think as we figure out what went wrong, we're going to know what the future holds. Right now, we just don't know that," Bridenstine said.

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