CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla: NASA pressed toward the launch of a new moon rocket Monday to put a crew capsule into lunar orbit for the first time in 50 years, after a leak reappeared in the same place that saw seepage during a dress rehearsal back in the spring.
As precious minutes in the countdown ticked away, launch controllers repeatedly halted the fueling operation, which already was running nearly an hour late because of thunderstorms offshore of Florida’s Kennedy Space Center.
NASA’s assistant launch director, Jeremy Graeber, said controllers finally managed to get the leak down to a safe and acceptable level, where it held steady as nearly 1 million gallons of super-cold fuel filled the tanks of the rocket’s core stage.
Graeber said NASA still has a shot at launching Monday morning, but won’t target a new liftoff time until the 10-minute hold in the countdown when managers conduct the “go-no go” poll.
“We have a lot of work to get to that point,” Graeber cautioned.
The 322-foot (98-meter) rocket is the most powerful ever built by NASA, out-muscling even the Saturn V used by the Apollo program that carried astronauts to the moon a half-century ago.
No astronauts were inside the Orion capsule. Instead, three test dummies were strapped in for the lunar-orbiting mission, expected to last six weeks.
Even though no one was on board, thousands of people jammed the coast to see the Space Launch System, or SLS, rocket soar. Vice President Kamala Harris flew into Orlando with her husband, but had yet to make the hourlong drive to Cape Canaveral for the planned liftoff.
If Monday’s launch can’t go forward, the next launch attempt wouldn’t be until Friday at the earliest.
A hazardous hydrogen fuel leak marred NASA’s countdown test back in April, prompting a slew of repairs. The demo was repeated with more success in June, but that, too, experienced some leakage. Managers had said they would not know for certain whether the fixes were good until attempting to load the rocket’s tanks Monday.
The problem was reminiscent of NASA’s space shuttle era, when hydrogen fuel leaks disrupted countdowns and delayed a string of launches back in 1990.
Launch director Charlie Blackwell-Thompson and her team also had to deal with a communication issue involving the Orion capsule.
Engineers scrambled to understand an 11-minute delay in the communication lines between Launch Control and Orion that cropped up late Sunday. Although the problem had cleared by Monday morning, NASA needed to know why it occurred before committing to a launch.
This first flight of NASA’s 21st-century moon-exploration program, named Artemis after Apollo’s mythological twin sister, is years overdue. Repeated delays have led to billions in budget overruns; this demo alone costs $4.1 billion.
Assuming the test goes well, astronauts would climb aboard for the second flight and fly around the moon and back as soon as 2024. A two-person lunar landing could follow by the end of 2025. NASA is targeting the moon’s south pole.
During Apollo, 12 astronauts landed on the moon from 1969 through 1972, with stays of no more than a few days. NASA is looking to establish a lunar base during Artemis, with astronauts rotating in and out for weeks at a time. The next step would be Mars, possibly in the late 2030s or early 2040s.