NASA’s engineers at Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, purposefully pushed the world’s largest rocket fuel tank beyond its design limits on 5th Dec 2019. The test version of the Space Launch System rocket’s liquid hydrogen tank withstood more than 260% of expected flight loads over 5 hours before engineers detected a buckling point, which then destroyed. The test took place at approximately 11 p.m. The chief engineer of the SLS Stages Office at Marshall, Neil Otte said, “We purposely took this tank to its extreme limits and broke it because pushing systems to the point of failure gives us additional data to help us build rockets intelligently”.
Success! Engineers @NASA_Marshall tested the @NASA_SLS liquid hydrogen test article tank to failure – the tank withstood more than 260% of expected flight loads before buckling and rupturing! #Artemis MORE: https://t.co/xznmov26FP pic.twitter.com/qAIyapEJA5
— Jim Bridenstine (@JimBridenstine) December 9, 2019
Otte said, “We will be flying the Space Launch System for decades to come and breaking the propellant tank today will help us safely and efficiently evolve the SLS rocket as our desired missions evolve”. The test on 5th Dec, conducted using a combination of gaseous nitrogen for pressurization and hydraulics for loads. It pushed the tank to the limits by exposing it to higher forces that caused it to break as engineers predicted. Previous tests at Marshall certified the tank for both the current version of the SLS (Block 1 version), which will use an upper stage called the Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage. The Block 1B version will replace the ICPS with the more powerful Exploration Upper Stage.
Marshall’s lead test engineer for the tank, Mike Nichols said, “This final tank test marks the largest-ever controlled test-to-failure of a NASA rocket stage pressurized tank. This data will benefit all aerospace companies designing rocket tanks”. NASA and Boeing engineers simulated liftoff and flight stresses on a test version of the Space Launch System liquid hydrogen tank for all the tests and it is structurally identical to the flight tank. They used large hydraulic pistons to deliver millions of pounds of punishing compression, tension and bending forces on the robust test tank throughout the tests in Marshall’s 215-foot-tall test stand. The test tank was fitted with thousands of sensors to measure stress, pressure, and temperature. There were high-speed cameras and microphones to capture every moment to identify buckling or cracking in the cylindrical tank wall.