More than a battery of tests before the Space Launch System (SLS), the most powerful rocket ever built by NASA, is ready for takeoff. This is a final rehearsal during which everything will be simulated as on D-Day, from the capabilities of the SLS to the tasks of the technical teams.
If the health crisis does not make the space agency take any more delay, the eight-step process will take place a priori until October, and will conclude with an ignition of the rocket while it will remain attached to the ground, retained by large cables.
“This is the first time that this type of test has been carried out”, says Mark Nappi, test director for Boeing, the main builder of this 100-meter-tall craft, slightly more than the Statue of Liberty, which will surpass the phenomenal Saturn V by 15%.
NASA is paying close attention to SLS, as its transport capacity makes it a key part of its strategy to transport humans to the Moon by 2024 and then to Mars.
Its first mission will be to go more than 450,000 kilometers from Earth, beyond the Moon, and to drop thirteen small satellites, the size of shoe boxes. However, before leaving, everything has to be tested.
Initiated in January, the tests were interrupted by the health crisis. Only one could have taken place in March at the American space center in Stennis, Mississippi, before it closed until mid-May.
It was not until the end of June that the teams were able to carry out a second test: light the first stage of the rocket to verify that all the software and all the electrical interfaces were working properly.
The third, scheduled for July, is to establish that it is possible to maintain control of the rocket even if critical communications systems stop working.
“This is an important prelude: before we get into the action, we have to be sure that we have redundant means of switching off the vehicle”, explains for Space John Cipoletti, the assistant director of tests.
The first stage valves and piping will then need to be tested to confirm that the vehicle can withstand more active testing. The technical team will also have to test themselves: they will make sure that all the protocols are fully established and that the members are ready to react in the event of the unexpected. Before starting the last two steps: load the rocket with fuel … and light the fire. Take-off planned for 2021.