CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) – NASA canceled the launch of its powerful New Moon rocket on its debut flight with three test dummies on board Monday after a last-minute cascade of problems culminating in unexplained problems with an engine.
The next launch attempt will take place on Friday at the earliest and could be delayed until mid-September or later.
The mission will be the first flight in NASA’s Artemis project, an attempt to return astronauts to the moon for the first time since the Apollo program ended 50 years ago.
As precious minutes elapsed on Monday morning, NASA repeatedly stopped and restarted refueling the Space Launch System rocket due to a leak of highly explosive hydrogen, eventually managing to reduce the leakage. The leak happened at the same spot that seeped during a spring dress rehearsal.
Due to thunderstorms in front of the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, the refueling was already almost an hour late.
Then NASA ran into fresh trouble when it couldn’t properly cool one of the rocket’s four main engines, officials said. Long after the launch postponement was announced, engineers struggled to pinpoint the cause of the problem.
Mission leader Mike Sarafin said the fault does not appear to be with the engine itself, but rather with the lines leading to it.
As engineers tried to fix this problem on the launch pad, another hydrogen leak developed, which was a vent valve further up the rocket, Sarafin said.
“This is a very complicated machine, a very complicated system, and all of these things have to work, and you don’t want to light the candle until it’s ready to go,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said.
Regarding launch delays, he said, “It’s just part of the space business and it’s particularly part of a test flight.”
The rocket was to take off on a flight to carry a crew capsule into orbit around the moon. The six-week mission was due to end with the capsule’s return to Earth in a Pacific splashdown in October.
The 98-meter-long spacecraft is the most powerful rocket ever built by NASA, even surpassing the Saturn V that took the Apollo astronauts to the moon.
The dummies in the Orion capsule were fitted with sensors to measure vibrations, cosmic rays and other conditions during the shakedown flight in order to stress test the spacecraft and push it to its limits in ways that would never be attempted , if people were on board.
Asked about the possibility of another launch attempt on Friday, Sarafin said: “We really need time to look at all the information, all the data. We’re going to play all nine innings here.”
Though no one was on board, thousands of people lined the shore to watch the rocket fly up. Vice President Kamala Harris and Apollo 10 astronaut Tom Stafford were among the VIPs who arrived.
Assuming the shakedown flight goes well, astronauts will board for the second Artemis mission and fly around the moon and back as early as 2024. A moon landing for two could follow by the end of 2025.
The problems observed Monday were reminiscent of NASA’s space shuttle era, when a 1990 hydrogen fuel leak broke countdowns and delayed a number of launches.
Later that morning, NASA officials also discovered a crack or other defect on the core stage — the large orange fuel tank with four main engines on it — but they later said it appeared to be just a build-up of frost in a crevice of the insulating foam.
Launch Director Charlie Blackwell-Thompson and her team also struggled with sluggish communications between the Orion capsule and launch controls. The problem, as it turned out, required a simple solution.
Ultimately, even if there had been no technical problems, thunderstorms would have prevented a launch, NASA said. Dark clouds and rain gathered over the launch site once the countdown stopped, and thunder echoed across the shore.
(Copyright (c) 2022 Sunbeam Television. The Associated Press contributed to this report. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, transcribed or redistributed.)
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