CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) – NASA’s New Moon rocket suffered another fuel leak Wednesday as engineers tested the pipelines ahead of a launch attempt as early as next week.
The all-day demo had barely begun when, despite new seals and other repairs, dangerous hydrogen fuel leaked at the same place and time as before. Engineers stopped the flow and heated the lines in hopes of plugging the leak and proceeded with the test. But the leak stayed.
Wednesday’s results will determine whether the 98-meter rocket is ready for its first test flight, a lunar orbiting mission using mannequins instead of astronauts.
Hydrogen leaks spoiled the first two launch attempts as well as earlier countdown tests. During the countdown earlier this month, so much hydrogen escaped that NASA’s limit was more than doubled. Wednesday’s leak was close to the limit, but the launch team managed to reduce the leak to an acceptable level over the course of the test.
After the previous delay, NASA replaced two seals. One had a tiny indentation; it measured only one hundredth of an inch.
“Now that doesn’t sound like much, but we’re dealing with hydrogen again,” said mission leader Mike Sarafin, the smallest element on the periodic table.
Wednesday’s goal: to pump nearly 1 million gallons (4 million liters) into the rocket with minimal leakage. That would put NASA on course for a possible launch attempt on Tuesday, assuming the US Space Force extends certification of onboard batteries that are part of the flight safety system.
In addition to replacing seals, NASA changed the refueling process, moving more slowly into charging the super-cold liquid hydrogen and oxygen. After the leak surfaced Wednesday, the launch team moved even more slowly to put even less stress on the lines.
After launch, the crew capsule on the rocket will be the first to orbit the moon in 50 years. The $4.1 billion mission was expected to last more than five weeks and end with a splashdown in the Pacific. Astronauts would climb aboard for the second test flight and race around the moon in 2024. The third mission, scheduled for 2025, would actually see a pair of astronauts land on the moon.
NASA’s Space Launch System rocket is more powerful than the Saturn V rocket that sent Apollo astronauts to the moon in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The engines and boosters are remnants of the now decommissioned Space Shuttles. Just like today, NASA struggled with elusive hydrogen leaks during the Shuttle era, particularly in the early 1990s.
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