NASA is replacing the leaking seals in its moon rocket on the pad in hopes of launching it on its first test flight by the end of this month.
Managers said Thursday they will conduct another test after repairs to ensure all hydrogen fuel leaks are plugged. If that test goes well – and if Space Force extends a flight safety waiver – then NASA could make another attempt to launch the 322-foot rocket in late September. If not, the rocket will return to the hangar for further work, delaying take-off until at least October.
A series of hydrogen fuel leaks and other problems disrupted consecutive launch attempts last week.
The Space Launch System rocket, the most powerful ever built by NASA, contains a crew capsule with three test dummies. The space agency wants to send the capsule into lunar orbit for a test run, before putting the astronauts on the next flight in 2024. That mission around the moon would pave the way for the first human moon landing in 50 years, currently scheduled for 2025.
“We have to complete the tanking test and then we will have to look at what the realism is and the schedule” to make a launch attempt as early as September 23, said Jim Free, NASA’s head of exploration development.
For launch in late September, NASA needs the go-ahead from the Space Force at Cape Canaveral, which oversees the rocket’s self-destruct system. Batteries are required to activate the system if the rocket veers off course to populated areas. These batteries need to be re-tested periodically and this can only be done in the hangar. The military should extend the certification of those batteries by another two weeks or more to avoid returning the rocket to the hangar.
But every time the rocket moves between the hangar and the launch pad it adds “routine wear, and I don’t want to” unless it’s necessary, Chief Engineer John Blevins said. There have already been three trips to the platform this year for the practice countdowns and, most recently, the foiled launch attempts on August 29 and Saturday.
The engineers hope that replacing a couple of gaskets in the hydrogen fuel lines at the bottom of the rocket will deal with any lingering leaks.
As an added precaution, the launch team plans “a gentler, gentler approach to tanking” during the final countdown phase, sometimes slowing the flow of fuel to reduce stress on the seals, according to Mike Bolger, a head of the program.
“We are optimistic that we can break this down,” he told reporters.
With years of delay and billions over budget, NASA’s new lunar exploration program is named Artemis after Apollo’s twin sister in Greek mythology. Twelve astronauts walked on the moon in the late 1960s and early 1970s during NASA’s Apollo program.
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