NASA aborted the second attempt to launch a giant new rocketship on Saturday due to a stubborn fuel leak that could delay the moon-to-Mars Artemis program by at least several weeks.
The preflight operations for the launch of the Space Launch System and its crew capsule were called off three hours before liftoff from Cape Canaveral, Florida.
The uncrewed test flight was to have marked the inaugural voyage of both the SLS and Orion, which would be spitting out a 50 year old program that paved the path for Artemis in its first mission.
The countdown was scrubbed after three unsuccessful attempts were made to fix a “large” leak of supercooled liquid hydrogen propellant being pumped into the rocket’s core-stage fuel tanks, officials said.
Initial launch attempt on Monday were unsuccessful largely because of technical problems such as a leaking fuel line, a faulty temperature sensor, and insulation foam having cracks.
Mission managers had planned to launch with a second attempt on Saturday, once they were confident that the issues they encountered earlier in the day had been resolved. NASA had scheduled another backup time for Monday or Tuesday, in case a third try was needed.
After reviewing data from the latest difficult water leak, NASA concluded that they needed more time to troubleshoot and fix the leak on the launch pad before this mission’s expiry period Tuesday.
The delay means the earliest opportunity to try again would come during the next launch period that runs Sept. 19-30, or during a subsequent October window. A NASA administrator, Jim Free, told reporters at a late-afternoon briefing.
The rocket will be rolled back into its assembly building in Cape Canaveral “range” rules, but without any additional safety checks to ensure the rocket is ready for liftoff.
NASA’s Artemis mission manager, Mike Sarafin, said a few weeks of work would be necessary to fix the latest technical snag.
Nelson, NASA’s chief said this morning that a rollback would postpone the next launch attempt at least until mid-October to avoid a scheduling conflict with the next International Space Station crew due for launch early that month. NASA is also attempting to avoid a possible collision, in which the two launches could cause an emergency situation on orbit and impact nearby satellites, corporate communications director John Grunsfeld said.
Launch-day malfunctions are frequent in the space business, especially new rockets such as NASA’s Space Launch System because it is complex and needs complex procedures before liftoff.
On average, a launch is scrubbed about one-in-three times for various reasons, including poor weather.
“We’re not going to launch until it’s right, and that is standard operating procedure, and will continue to be,” Nelson said at the briefing.
It was the last minute setbacks related to the launchpad, which came at the tail end of an expensive decade-long development program that has led to years of delays and billions of dollars in cost overruns.
MOON TO MARS
Besides its technical challenges, the Artemis I program signals a major turning point for NASA’s human spaceflight program.
Named for the Greek goddess who was Apollo’s twin sister in mythology, Artemis aims to return astronauts to the moon’s surface by 2025, though many experts believe that timeframe will likely slip.
The U.S. and Soviet space efforts were originally more geared towards scientific research, with Apollo representing America’s first lunar landing mission during the Cold War.
The moon program has enlisted commercial partners such as SpaceX and the space agencies of Europe, Canada and Japan to eventually establish a long-term lunar base of operations. This is seen as a stepping stone to even more ambitious human voyages to Mars.
Getting the SLS-Orion spacecraft launched is a key first step before it undergoes testing and is launched on its first mission. It’s important to test the vehicle’s design limits, while aiming to prove that it’s up for astronaut transportation.
These missions with the Artemis II craft and its crew could happen as early as 2024 if everything goes perfectly. And then within a few years, this program’s first lunar landing would occur, one of the astronauts being a woman, with Artemis III.
With a budget of $9 billion and made up of three main engines, the SLS is an icon in NASA’s space program.
The design of Orion was based on a mock-up crew of three – one male and two female mannequins with sensors to measure radiation levels during deep-space travel.