CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida –
NASA’s new moon rocket caused another dangerous fuel leak on Saturday, forcing launch controllers to cancel their second attempt to send a crew capsule into lunar orbit with test dummies.
The first attempt earlier in the week was also blighted by a hydrogen leak, but those leaks were elsewhere on the 322-foot (98-meter) rocket, the most powerful NASA has ever built.
NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said repair work could push the launch back to October.
The heads of mission planned to meet later in the day to decide on a course of action. After Tuesday, a two-week launch ban period comes into effect. In the meantime, extensive leak inspections and repairs may require the rocket to be removed from the platform and returned to the hangar; that would push the flight back to October, Nelson said.
“We’ll go when it’s ready. We’re not going that far and especially now on a test flight, because we’re going to insist on that and test it… and make sure it’s good before we put four humans on site at the top,” Nelson said.
He added: “It’s part of our space program: be ready for scrubs.”
NASA wants to send the crew capsule atop the rocket around the moon, pushing it to the limit before astronauts board the next flight. If the five-week demonstration with test dummies is successful, astronauts could fly around the moon in 2024 and land there in 2025. People last walked on the moon 50 years ago.
Launch director Charlie Blackwell-Thompson and his team had barely begun loading nearly 1 million gallons of fuel into the Space Launch System rocket at dawn when the leak appeared in the bottom engine section.
Ground controllers tried to plug it the same way they had handled previous leaks: stopping and restarting the flow of super-cold liquid hydrogen in hopes of closing the gap around a joint in the line. power supply. They tried that twice, actually, and also injected helium into the line. But the leak persisted.
Blackwell-Thompson finally stopped the countdown after three to four hours of futile effort.
During Monday’s launch attempt, hydrogen leaked from elsewhere in the rocket. Technicians have tightened fittings over the past week, but Blackwell-Thompson warned she won’t know if everything is tight until Saturday’s refueling.
Hydrogen molecules are extremely small – the smallest in existence – and even the smallest gap or crevice can provide a way out. NASA’s now-retired space shuttles were plagued by hydrogen leaks. The new moon rocket uses the same type of main engines.
Even more problematic on Monday, a sensor indicated that one of the rocket’s four engines was too hot, but engineers later verified that it was actually quite cold. The launch team planned to ignore the faulty sensor this time around and rely on other instruments to ensure that each prime mover was properly cooled. But the countdown has never gone so far.
Mission leaders accepted the additional risk posed by the engine problem as well as a separate problem: cracks in the rocket’s insulating foam. But they acknowledged that other issues – like fuel leaks – could lead to another delay.
That didn’t stop thousands of people scrambling up the coast to see the Space Launch System rocket lift off. Local authorities were expecting massive crowds due to the long Labor Day holiday weekend.
The $4.1 billion test flight is the first step in NASA’s Artemis program of renewed lunar exploration, named after Apollo’s twin sister in Greek mythology.
Twelve astronauts walked on the moon during NASA’s Apollo program, the last time in 1972.
Artemis – years behind schedule and billions over budget – aims to establish an enduring human presence on the moon, with crews possibly spending weeks at a time. It is considered a training ground for Mars.
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