A fiery blast and towering cloud of smoke briefly interrupted the clear desert air of Box Elder County last week, marking another milestone in plans to return Americans to the Moon and deeper into outer space.
On the afternoon of Wednesday, Sept. 2, NASA and Northrop Grumman Corp. joined forces at Northrop Grumman’s Promontory campus, where they conducted a full-scale static fire test of NASA’s Space Launch System rocket motor. Because of the pandemic, the typical crowds weren’t there to cheer it on, but officials said the test was successful.
During the test, the 154-foot-long, five-segment rocket motor fired for just over two minutes, producing 3.6 million pounds of thrust. Two SLS boosters will provide more than 75 percent of the initial thrust for launches into space beginning next year.
Last week’s test, known as Flight Support Booster (FSB-1), represented a key step for NASA’s Artemis program, the successor to the shuttle program that was retired in 2011. The plan for Artemis is to land the next man and first woman on the moon in 2024 “using innovative technologies to explore more of the lunar surface than ever before,” according to materials posted on NASA’s Artemis website.
“We will use what we learn on and around the Moon to take the next giant leap — sending astronauts to Mars,” the website states.
While the shuttle boosters were comprised of four segments, the SLS booster has five segments, making it about 30 feet longer and providing 20 percent greater average thrust than the shuttle boosters.
As a major contributor to the Artemis program, Northrop Grumman has been working on new products to enable NASA to return humans to the moon, with the ultimate goal of human exploration of Mars.
Northrop Grumman’s new boosters will help NASA “push the boundaries of what is possible for human exploration in space,” said Charlie Precourt, vice president of propulsion systems for Northrop Grumman.
The new motor is based on the flight-proven design of the shuttle boosters, with enhanced technologies and updated materials to support NASA’s most powerful rocket to date.
The Promontory facility is where the solid-propellant fuel for the boosters is manufactured and cast into the booster segments, which are built at other Northrop Grumman facilities in Utah and other states. The Promontory facility has been integral to the U.S. space program since its beginnings, and continues to be a vital part of the development and testing of the motors that propel NASA missions, Precourt said.
Prior to last week’s test, NASA and Northrop Grumman conducted a series of ground tests beginning in 2010 to satisfy requirements for certification of the booster. The most recent test evaluated ballistic parameters and performance of propellant materials from new sources.
The first Artemis mission, scheduled for next year, will send an unmanned Orion spacecraft to orbit the moon. The second mission, slated for 2023, will be another moon-orbiting mission piloted by astronauts. The third mission will attempt a moon landing, for which the Trump Administration has set a 2024 deadline.
Northrop Grumman delivered the first set of rocket motor segments for Artemis I boosters to the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida in June of this year, shipping them by train from Promontory. The second set of motors for the Artemis II boosters are nearly complete, and rocket motor segments for Artemis III are in production. Materials evaluated in last week’s test could be used in subsequent Artemis missions depending on how they perform in the early missions.
The public is typically invited to congregate at a large parking and viewing area just off of State Route 83 for large test-firing events, which have been known to draw thousands of spectators, but officials urged people to stay away last week due to COVID-19 concerns with large gatherings. The test was streamed live on NASA TV for all to view, and remains available for viewing on YouTube and other online channels.
The live audience for the test this time around was limited to a smaller group of NASA and Northrop Grumman officials and employees, as well as a couple of astronauts who came to see the product upon which their lives will depend when they are sent skyward.
“Testing our rocket boosters is how we can ensure astronauts can explore space safely,” said Precourt, a former NASA astronaut who flew on four shuttle missions. “Every time I watch one of these tests here, when we get down to the last 30 seconds (before ignition), it reminds me of being on the launch pad.”
Bruce Tiller, manager of the SLS booster program at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, came to Promontory to view the test live. He said the lack of a large in-person audience didn’t diminish the importance of the test, and praised the Northrop Grumman employees and others involved in the process for staying on schedule for Artemis I to fly in 2021 despite challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“To pull this off after six months of what we’ve been through is very impressive,” Tiller said. “This feels like a milestone in a lot of ways … it’s all coming together this year.”