The solid-rocket booster that’s destined to help send future NASA missions into deep space has blasted through its last full-scale test firing in advance of 2018’s maiden launch of the heavy-lift SLS rocket.
Today’s two-minute, six-second firing at Orbital ATK’s test range near Promontory, Utah, wowed hundreds of workers and onlookers who gathered (at a safe distance) to watch the booster light up like a “Game of Thrones” dragon.
“It’s always a blast,” Alex Priskos, manager of NASA’s Space Launch System Boosters Office, said with a straight face afterward.
Charlie Precourt, a former NASA astronaut who is now Orbital ATK’s vice president and general manager for propulsion systems, said it was a “beautiful test.”
“That rumble that you get is awesome,” he said.
The test was a rehearsal with the super-sized, five-segment version of a four-segment booster design that was used during the space shuttle program. For the practice firing, the rocket was braced in a horizontal rather than a vertical position.
There were a few glitches before the curtain went up: Priskos said the rocket team had to resolve several computer sequencing issues and hardware issues. As a result, the test took place an hour later than originally scheduled.
“We’ll go find out what was going on there,” he said.
Two of the 177-foot-long boosters, each packing 3.6 million pounds of thrust, are to be used on the Space Launch System rocket when it lifts off for flights beyond Earth orbit. The first SLS is being built at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama.
The 2018 test launch, known as Exploration Mission 1 or EM-1, will power an uncrewed Orion capsule beyond the moon and back. In addition to the solid-rocket boosters, the SLS will be powered by a core stage with four of Aerojet Rocketdyne’s shuttle-derived RS-25 engines, and a Boeing-built upper stage.
Priskos said three of the 10 solid-rocket segments required for EM-1 are already built. “We’re way on our way to EM-1,” he said.
EM-1 will set the stage for EM-2, which would lift off in the 2021-2023 time frame to send astronauts on a trip beyond the moon. Eventually, SLS rockets are expected to send NASA crews to study a piece of an asteroid, and then explore Mars and its moons.