NASA orders a second delay for the moon-bound Artemis rocket

NASA engineers kept the countdown at T-40 minutes while troubleshooting for more than an hour. Eventually, launch director Charlie Blackwell-Thompson called the attempt a peel. At a press conference the following day, members of the Artemis team suggested that the apparent engine problem might actually have been a sign of a dodgy temperature sensor. “The way the sensor is behaving doesn’t match the physics of the situation,” said John Honeycutt, the SLS program manager.

The start was then pushed back to this weekend, with countdown procedures beginning again early Saturday morning. Anticipating challenges with the propellants, they began the cooldown process, including the kickstart test, about 45 minutes earlier during the countdown procedure. The start team and weather officer confirmed that the weather was suitable for the start, despite some intermittent rain showers. They began filling the large orange fuel tank with more than 700,000 gallons of liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen supercooled to a chilly -423 and -297 degrees Fahrenheit.

But then the hydrogen leak started after the oxygen was mostly refueled. “Hydrogen is difficult to work with,” said Jim Free, deputy administrator at NASA Headquarters, during the post-scrub press conference. The leak appears to be coming from a seal in the 8-inch quick connector, a fitting used for the liquid hydrogen supply line from the ground system. Eventually it became clear that this fixture needed to be removed and replaced.

At 11:17 a.m. Eastern time, Blackwell-Thompson made the call to scrub the launch attempt.

In an industry where “lack of space” is a cliche, such delays are not uncommon, even when the weather cooperates. During NASA’s space shuttle program, some ultimately successful launches had to be delayed multiple times. The task becomes even more daunting with the SLS – a huge, brand new rocket with numerous systems to coordinate. NASA has 489 “launch commitment criteria” that must be met before they can “go” to launch, Sarafin said at a Sept. 1 news conference.

NASA may have to delay the Artemis launch until mid-October to come after SpaceX’s Crew-5 launch on a neighboring pad – which has also been delayed multiple times. This mission will bring two NASA astronauts, a Japanese astronaut and a Russian cosmonaut, Anna Kikina, to the International Space Station. This will be the first time a Russian has flown aboard a US-made spacecraft since the conflict in Ukraine sparked tensions between Roscosmos, NASA and other space agencies.

The team is still considering whether repairs can be made on the launch pad or whether the rocket will need to be rolled back to the Vehicle Assembly Building. “There’s a trade-off between risk and risk,” Sarafin said, noting that the missile on the pad faces environmental risks, but that the quick-disconnect seal cannot be tested at cryogenic temperatures inside the building.

A rollback itself is not without its risks, as the movement and vibration can stress the rocket. But to minimize wear and tear, the missile would not move faster than a mile per hour on a machine called a “crawler.” This rollback option would ensure a delay until the end of October, which could also pose risks for the small spacecraft aboard the rocket, destined for their own mini-missions. These spaceships, called CubeSats, have limited-capacity batteries – some of which can be recharged, some of which cannot. “If we have to go back to the vehicle assembly building, we can top up the batteries for some of them,” Sarafin said at the press conference. “It’s part of the process to look at a specific launch period.”

Stressing that Artemis 1 is a test flight, Nelson said today’s pushback is not expected to impact the overall timeline for the program, which aims to send astronauts to lunar orbit aboard Artemis 2 in 2024 and send them to orbit aboard Artemis to land on the Moon 3 in 2025. (However, that lunar landing mission could be delayed to 2026, according to a March assessment by NASA’s Inspector General.)

While the Artemis team was set to launch today, NASA officials stressed that the rocket is in good condition and that they are confident they can safely launch in the near future. “We’re not where we want to be, other than the vehicle being safe — it’s not safe in orbit, it’s safe on the ground,” Free said.

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