NASA Broke Its New Rocket ... Just to See What Would Happen
Matthew Greenwood posted on July 10, 2020 |
The SLS rocket went through grueling testing in preparation for the Artemis missions.

NASA recently completed the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket testing program in spectacular fashion: by busting open the rocket’s liquid oxygen tank.

For that final test, the tank—which measures 70 feet tall and 28 feet in diameter—was bolted into a huge 185,000-pound steel ring. Hydraulic cylinders then applied millions of pounds of crippling force from all sides—far beyond what the structure is expected to withstand in space—to the point where the tank buckled at the weld points and tore open, releasing a torrent of water. Water was used as a stand-in for liquid oxygen to simulate the fuel’s behavior during the test.

Testing to failure gives NASA a more accurate picture of just how durable and resilient the technology really is—and demonstrates that the rocket will be able to withstand stresses beyond normal mission parameters should anything go wrong. Encouragingly, the tank failed within 2 percent of the predicted failure point. This is a good sign that the tank will perform as intended when it’s called on to help launch the SLS—the most powerful rocket NASA has ever built—and its human crew into space.

NASA tests the SLS to failure.

Completion of the testing program is “a major milestone not only for the SLS Program but also for the Artemis program,” said SLS Program Manager John Honeycutt. “From building the test stands, support equipment and test articles to conducting the tests and analyzing the data, it is remarkable work that will help send astronauts to the Moon.”

NASA has completed 199 tests on the SLS over the last three years, generating 421 gigabytes of data from thousands of sensors, high-speed cameras and microphones to measure stress, pressure, temperature, cracks and buckling. This encompassed an integrated test of a fully assembled upper section of the rocket, including the interim cryogenic propulsion stage, the Orion stage adapter and the launch vehicle stage adapter. And extensive testing was also performed on the rocket’s core stage: the engine section, the intertank, and the liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen tanks.

It’s the agency’s most extensive testing regime since the end of the Space Shuttle program. The data collected throughout the testing process should help NASA and Boeing engineers fine-tune the system to fully optimize it.

Now that testing has been completed, the agency can start preparing the massive rocket for launch—a big step forward for the ambitious Artemis program to take the first woman and the next man to the Moon by 2024.

Read more about the SLS at Breaking Down NASA’s Hardware For Returning Astronauts to the Moon.

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