The Moon moved a little further from NASA over the weekend as the first firing of the Space Launch System's core stage came to an abrupt halt after only 67.2 seconds.
The firing, on 16 January, was the culmination of NASA's Green Run efforts that have seen the Boeing-led core stage erected on the B-2 test stand at Stennis Space Center in Mississippi.
Tests including avionic checkouts and filling the tanks led up to the weekend's activities, which should have seen the four Space Shuttle Main Engines at the base of the stage run for a full-duration simulation of the launch. Depending on the rate the propellant was burned, engineers estimated that the duration could have been anywhere from 485 to 493 seconds.
As it was, the firing lasted 67.2 seconds, according to NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine. Not long enough to reach orbit by any stretch of the imagination. Had this been a real launch, the abort technology of the Orion spacecraft would have been given an unexpected workout.
Those watching NASA TV over the weekend were treated to a "MCF" (Major Component Failure) call from the control room during the test room at around the 45-second mark. All four engines were shut down automatically 20 seconds later. The problem appeared to centre on engine number 4.
Engineers had expected to try out three different power levels for the engines during the test. Two sets of gimballing movements lasting 30 seconds each (in order to simulate steering) were also planned.
NASA was targeting 2021 for a launch of the uncrewed Artemis I before shoving astronauts into the capsule for subsequent missions ahead of a Moon landing in 2024. The agency has already begun stacking the solid rocket boosters for this mission in anticipation of the core stage turning up.
Although the weekend's shenanigans are a prime example of why testing is a good thing, a delay now seems inevitable unless engineers decide that the truncated firing provided enough data to proceed.
The engines themselves are veterans of the Space Shuttle programme that have been converted from being reusable units, flown back to Earth on the tail of NASA's orbiters, to one-shot wonders to be dumped into the ocean during launch.
As for that schedule, things are starting to mount up a bit. NASA has elected to fly the Orion capsule with a suspect redundant power channel for Artemis I in an effort to stave off delay. However, the funding to build a lander has yet to appear.
The impending change of US administration could well result in an update to the schedule once again. ®