NASA and Boeing Co. suffered a potentially major setback in their deep-space ambitions when the engines for a giant new rocket shut down prematurely Saturday during a key test on the ground.
The engines were supposed to produce power for eight minutes but shut down after about 60 seconds while fastened to a stand at the Stennis Space Center in Mississippi. Program officials had said four minutes would be the minimum time to gain confidence in the reliability of the engines, fuel system and surrounding structures.
National Aeronautics and Space Administration officials said they couldn’t immediately determine the cause of the premature shutdown, and therefore it was too early to determine what fixes would be necessary or even if the test needed to be repeated. They said engineers didn’t know whether it was a hardware, software or sensor malfunction.
Boeing is the prime contractor for the mammoth Space Launch System booster, which is more powerful than the Saturn V that blasted Apollo astronauts toward the moon in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It was slated for its first uncrewed launch late this year, but that schedule is now in flux. Political and budget pressures on the program, projected to cost a total of between $19 billion and $23 billion to complete, were already increasing.
Departing NASA chief James Bridenstine repeatedly said in a news conference that the test shouldn’t be considered a failure, because engineers and program managers gained important data. But he also said, “It’s not everything we hoped it would be.”