In an exciting day for America’s space program, NASA is planning a test firing of an engine that will propel U.S. astronauts farther into space than ever before. The test will take place in Mississippi tomorrow. Known as the RS-25, it was the main engine used on the Space Shuttle program and will now form part of NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS). The SLS will be used to lift the Shuttle’s successor, the Orion, on a Mission to Mars as well as landings on asteroids.
As congressional funding for NASA has forced its astronauts to ride on Russian Soyuz spacecraft for trips to the International Space Station, the test comes as welcome news that the U.S. space program continues to lead the international community.
The RS-25 forms an important part of the SLS, which in total will use four RS-25’s in a stacked configuration that will fire in series. Thursday’s test fire will mark the sixth of seven tests and will last for 9 minutes, the same duration as will be used in an actual launch.
The Orion program schedule has slated its first mission for a date no later than November 2018, with the second flight scheduled to take astronauts within lunar orbit. The long term goal of the program is to bring enough materials into orbit that astronauts can venture to Mars, our closest planetary neighbor. The trip will take up to two years and so requires heavy lift launch capabilities NASA hasn't had since the Apollo program of the 1970s.
There may be a problem with hitting the 2018 deadline, however, as Kennedy Space Center’s (KSC) facilities may not be ready to receive the SLS by then. The development of KSC facilities is dependent on the progress of the ongoing SLS testing phase.
Known as Ground Systems Development and Operation (GSDO), the KSC facility forms one part of a three-part program, which includes the SLS and Orion. NASA has stated that as of March 2015, only 64% of the interdependent requirements between the three parts of the program have been resolved. NASA’s Office of Inspector General was not willing to totally write off a November 2018 deadline, however, “It is too early to say whether these substantial coordination challenges will result in cost or schedule issues for the Exploration Mission 1 launch.”