NASA’s Space Launch System rocket
The core stage for the first flight of NASA’s Space Launch System rocket is seen in the B-2 Test Stand during a scheduled eight minute duration hot fire test, on January 16, 2021, at NASA’s Stennis Space Center near Bay St. Louis, Mississippi. Image Credit: AFP

Washington: After billions of dollars and a decade of work, NASA's plans to send astronauts back to the moon had a new setback Saturday. A planned eight-minute test firing of the four engines of a new mega rocket needed for the moon missions came to an abrupt end after only about a minute.

As engineers disentangle what went wrong, the first launch of the rocket is likely to slip further into the future, and NASA astronauts may have to wait longer before setting foot on the moon again.

NASA officials, however, said that it was too early to predict delays, if any. "I don't think at this point that we have enough information to know," Jim Bridenstine, the NASA administrator, said during a news conference after the test.

John Honeycutt, the program manager at NASA for the rocket, said it was too early to know whether the failure was one of hardware, software or a sensor. "It's one of these things where the team is going to pore through the data," he said.

The rocket, known as the Space Launch System, has yet to travel to space, and Saturday's test was intended to be a key milestone. For the first time, the four engines on the booster stage were set to be fired for about eight minutes, simulating what they would do during an actual launch.

The vehicle is a key component for Artemis, the program that is intended to take NASA astronauts back to the moon. Although President Donald Trump pledged to make the trip by the end of 2024, few expected that NASA would meet that timeline.

The booster used in Saturday's test was scheduled to head to space in November in an uncrewed test flight. But instead of packing the booster for shipment to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, engineers will now have to investigate what went wrong.

By design, the booster was not going anywhere Saturday. It was firmly held to the ground in a test stand at NASA's Stennis Space Center in Mississippi.

Ignition of the engines started smoothly at 5:27 p.m. Eastern time, with white clouds billowing out of the test stand. But about 50 seconds after ignition, one of the controllers said, "MCF on Engine 4." MCF is an abbreviation for "major component failure."

While the rocket is new, the engines are not. They are the same ones that were flown to orbit on NASA's space shuttles.