Watch NASA Perform Water Deluge Test to Prepare for SLS Launch

The SLS is a massive endeavor, from the ground up.

The 8.8 million pounds of thrust produced by NASA’s biggest, most powerful rocket yet, the Space Launch System, has to go somewhere when it lifts off in 2020.

And that “somewhere” is NASA’s Ignition Overpressure Protection and Sound Suppression System (IOP/SS), which will help protect against complete destruction of both the launch site and the rocket itself. Without a rocket sitting atop it, the IOP/SS looks like the 100-foot self-made geyser that drew the eyes of the internet in a TechInsider video posted to Facebook on Monday. The clip of the vertical spurt of water emerging from Launch Pad 39B at the Kennedy Space Center collected 1.4 million views, over 8,100 reacts, and 6,500 shares.

How NASA Makes Sure Nothing Catches on Fire

For the October 15 test featured in the video, NASA released 450,000 gallons (roughly 1.7 million liters) of water from a holding tank into a 450-foot-long flame trench. That means at peak flow, the system can run water through at a clip of 1.1 million gallons per minute, or enough to empty two Olympic-sized swimming pools in a minute.

8.8 million pounds of thrust will come from the four RS-25 engines and two boosters, pictured above.


During an actual launch with the 380-foot mobile launcher mounted, NASA sprays the water on the launch pad for ignition and liftoff. The massive amount of water ensures that sound waves from the rocket’s four powerful RS-25 engines and two rocket boosters don’t bounce back up and destroy the vehicle.

(Through the sheer amount of pressure generated, the boosters damaged NASA’s first space shuttle flight, STS-1, in 1981. Thankfully, we’ve learned since then.)

The water deluge system also ensures that nothing catches on fire during liftoff, as temperatures beneath the rocket can reach as high as 2,200 degrees Fahrenheit (about 1,200 degrees Celsius). We’ve been using Launch Pad 39B since Apollo 10 lifted off in 1969, and NASA has no intention to stop, actually having modified the space as a “clean pad” so that other companies may use the pad for future launches. SpaceX already signed a 20-year lease for Launch Pad 39A in 2014.

Upgrading Launch Pad 39B

In the immediate future, to prepare for the unprecedented power of the SLS, NASA refurbished the flame trench, installed a flame deflector, and replaced many of the pipes and valves that transport the Olympic-sized quantities of water.

An aerial view of Launch Pad 39B at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. 

 NASA/Bill White

These preparations are the responsibility of NASA’s Exploration Ground Systems, the Florida-based program that ensures facilities are ready and able to launch rockets. You could say they’re the guardians of NASA’s spaceport.

Upgrading Launch Pad 39B to handle the SLS is one crucial step on Earth within NASA’s larger plan for deep space travel. Its first mission, Exploration Mission-1, will take the Orion capsule in a loopy figure eight around the moon and back in 2020, for what is hopefully the first of many trips to explore deep space.

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