NASA to Analyze Moon Rocket Fuel Leak, Further Pushing Launch

NASA to Analyze Moon Rocket Fuel Leak, Further Pushing Launch

candyfimolla
4 September 2022

JOHN F. KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla.—NASA is likely to remove its massive moon rocket from a launchpad after scrubbing a second attempted launch Saturday, a move that could delay the planned Artemis I mission by several weeks, officials said.

Rolling the agency’s Space Launch System rocket back to a facility here, NASA officials said, would allow engineers to work on resolving a hydrogen leak that prompted engineers to again delay the Artemis I launch, intended as the first step in the agency’s multiyear plan to land astronauts on the moon. NASA leaders also discussed potentially conducting that work on the launchpad, leaving the rocket in place.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said the decision to postpone Saturday’s planned launch, which came after the agency earlier in the week called off its first try, was prudent. Three attempts to stop what officials described as a large hydrogen leak failed, pushing launch teams to ultimately set aside plans for a blastoff earlier in the afternoon.

“We don’t have the launch that we wanted today,” Mr. Nelson said at an afternoon briefing Saturday. He said that safety is the agency’s priority, and NASA won’t try to blast off the rocket until it is ready.

NASA won’t attempt a launch on Monday, Sept. 5, or Tuesday, Sept. 6, other potential windows that the agency had previously identified if Saturday’s launch didn’t proceed. A launch period including those dates is “definitely off the table,” said Jim Free, the agency’s associate administrator focused on developing exploration systems.

Determining if another attempt is possible later in the fall, including October, will depend on the options NASA’s teams deliver, likely early next week, Mr. Free said.

The hydrogen leak emerged during the fueling process Saturday and couldn’t be contained despite multiple attempts to fix it, the agency said. The leak related to a “quick disconnect” connection on a line used to flow liquid-hydrogen into a huge tank on the Space Launch System, the towering rocket that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration wants to use to start its Artemis missions, which aim to return astronauts to the surface of the moon.

The SLS rocket uses super-cold liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen as propellants, and filling its enormous tanks with them is a challenge. Hydrogen is a very small molecule and can escape efforts to contain it, NASA officials have said.

The agency said after a practice run in June that it would take fresh steps to deal with a hydrogen leak, and NASA was able to manage through a leak during fueling on Monday, before that launch was called off because of problems with an engine-cooling procedure.

Engineers tried two different methods to stop the leak Saturday after first detecting it at 7:15 a.m. ET.

Neither was successful. Around 10 a.m., they decided to try the first fix again, allowing the connection related to the leak to warm up before teams “hit it with some cryos,” said Derrol Nail, the agency’s commentator on its live stream—a reference to the super-cold cryogenic liquid hydrogen. The leak returned.

The hydrogen leak Saturday was large, Artemis mission manager Mike Sarafin said at a briefing, and didn’t respond to techniques that resolved a smaller leak during the first launch attempt earlier in the week.

NASA faces another constraint to launching again soon, officials said, related to the batteries on a system that can be used to terminate a flight.

After years of delays and cost overruns, NASA is trying to ignite the SLS rocket and launch the crewless Artemis I mission from a pad at the Kennedy site. Artemis is the name of NASA’s program to return astronauts to the moon, where no person has visited since 1972, and eventually to develop a long-term presence there and push on to Mars.

For Artemis I, the SLS rocket would power the uncrewed Orion spacecraft toward a lunar orbit. Later, the capsule on that vehicle would return to Earth as part of a critical test of its heat shield.

NASA scrubbed Monday’s attempt after encountering a series of challenges during countdown. In particular, the agency decided it needed more time to analyze data related to a problem that emerged during a cooling procedure for the SLS rocket’s four engines.

While auto-racing drivers warm up engines on their cars before competing, NASA needs to chill the engines on the SLS rocket to around minus 420 degrees Fahrenheit to condition them for takeoff. During the attempt on Monday, one of the four engines wasn’t getting as cold as the other three, though none of them cooled down to the right temperatures, officials said during briefings this week.

NASA officials said on Thursday that a temperature sensor delivered faulty data about the engine in question, even though sufficient quantities of ultracold liquid hydrogen used for the cool-down procedure were flowing into the engines.

Because of the hydrogen leak Saturday, NASA wasn’t able to try the engine-cooling process again.

NASA expects the Artemis I mission to take several weeks. The planned flight would begin with a launch and end when the Orion crew capsule splashes down into the Pacific Ocean.

Postponing flights wasn’t uncommon during previous agency launch campaigns over the years, such as when NASA operated the space shuttle, which last flew in 2011. Mr. Nelson, a former astronaut, said a shuttle flight he was on was pushed off four times before it flew.

After the first Artemis mission, NASA plans one more test flight using SLS and Orion before it looks to use the vehicles to set up the first moon landing in decades.

For the second Artemis mission, slated for 2024, NASA plans to launch astronauts on board Orion into lunar orbit using a SLS rocket, but they wouldn’t try to touch down.

One year after that, the agency would use another SLS rocket and Orion ship to take astronauts back to orbiting the moon, where they would board a SpaceX Starship lander that the Elon Musk-led company is developing to take two astronauts to the lunar surface.

The different elements of the SLS rockets are jettisoned after use, though an increasing number of components and systems on Orion will be reused as Artemis missions take place, according to Lockheed Martin Corp., the ship’s main developer.

Space Exploration Technologies Corp., the formal name for SpaceX, is developing its Starship spacecraft, and the booster that would blast it off, to be fully reusable. SpaceX’s rocket system hasn’t flown an orbital test yet.

NASA relied on Boeing Co., Northrop Grumman Corp. and other aerospace companies to develop different parts of the SLS rocket. The agency and main contractors have said they are pushing to reduce costs and streamline operations for Artemis. The first four Artemis flights are expected to cost $4.1 billion each, NASA’s inspector general has said.

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