NASA’s new moon rocket sprung another deadly fuel leak on Saturday, forcing launch controllers to cancel their second attempt this week to launch a crew capsule with test dummies into lunar orbit. The first flight has been postponed for weeks, if not months.
Monday’s last attempt to launch the 322-foot (98-meter) Space Launch System rocket, the most powerful ever constructed by NASA, was also plagued by lesser hydrogen leaks. This was in addition to leaks discovered during past countdown exercises.
After the most recent setback, mission managers chose to transport the rocket to the hangar for additional repairs and system upgrades. Before the rocket is relocated, some of the work and testing may be undertaken on the launch pad. According to officials, several weeks of work will be required regardless of the outcome.
With a two-week launch ban approaching in a matter of days, the rocket is currently grounded until late September or early October. NASA will work around a SpaceX astronaut mission to the International Space Station with a high priority scheduled for early October.
NASA Administrator Bill Nelson emphasized that safety is of the utmost importance, especially during a test flight such as this one in which the rocket’s systems must be verified “before we put four humans on top of it. Remember, we won’t launch until everything is perfect,” he continued.
NASA has waited for years for the crew capsule atop the rocket to orbit the moon. If the six-week demonstration is successful, humans could circumnavigate the moon in 2024 and arrive on it in 2025. The last moonwalk occurred 50 years ago.
At dawn, launch director Charlie Blackwell-Thompson and her team had just begun loading roughly one million gallons of fuel into the Space Launch System rocket’s engine section when the huge leak occurred.
Controllers on the ground attempted to plug the leak like they had with lesser leaks in the past: by pausing and resuming the flow of super-cold liquid hydrogen around a supply line’s seal. In fact, they attempted it twice and flushed the line with helium. However, the leak continued.
After three to four hours of useless efforts, Blackwell-Thompson eventually paused the countdown. Mission manager Mike Sarafin informed the media that it was too early to determine the origin of the leak, but that it may have been caused by the unintended over-pressurization of the hydrogen line earlier in the morning as a result of incorrect valve commands.
“This was not a controllable leak,” Sarafin said, adding that the escaping hydrogen exceeded flammability norms by a factor of two or three. Several small hydrogen leaks appeared there and elsewhere on the rocket during Monday’s attempt. Technicians adjusted the fittings in the days that followed, but Blackwell-Thompson warned her that she wouldn’t know if everything was secure until Saturday’s refueling.
Hydrogen molecules are the smallest in existence, therefore even the tiniest crack or crevice can serve as an escape route. Hydrogen leaks afflicted the decommissioned space shuttles of NASA. The new moon rocket utilizes identical primary engines.
A sensor showed that one of the rocket’s four engines was too warm on Monday, but engineers later confirmed that it was indeed cold enough. This time, the launch crew intended to disregard the defective sensor and depend on other equipment to verify that each main engine was appropriately cooled. But the countdown never reached this point.
Thousands of tourists who flocked to the shore over Labor Day weekend in hopes of witnessing the launch of the Space Launch System rocket were left disappointed. The $4.1 billion test flight is the first stage in NASA’s Artemis program of renewed lunar exploration, which is named for Apollo’s twin sister Artemis.
Artemis seeks to create a long-term human presence on the moon, with crews eventually spending weeks there. The project is years behind schedule and billions over budget. It is considered Mars’ training ground. During the Apollo program, twelve astronauts stepped on the moon for the final time in 1972.