A problem with the rocket engine forces NASA to delay the first launch of the moon rocket

NASA's Space Launch System rocket stands on its launch pad in Florida.  (NASA via YouTube)

NASA’s Space Launch System rocket stands on its launch pad in Florida. (NASA via YouTube)

A plumbing problem on a rocket engine has forced a postponement of the first launch of NASA’s most powerful rocket on a landmark flight around the moon.

NASA’s Space Launch System rocket went well into the refueling process for today’s launch of the Artemis 1 unmanned mission, which is designed to test all of the systems that will come into play in manned missions to the Moon.

During the countdown, engineers discovered a problem with one of the four core phase RS-25 rocket engines. The rocket is designed to “drain” some of its supercooled propellant to condition its engines – basically to keep the engines at the right temperature for launch. But the hydrogen bleed procedure did not work properly on engine #3.

Engineers tried various techniques to solve the plumber, and NASA called an unscheduled stop at T-minus-40 minutes to give them more time to find a solution. But in the end, the mission managers decided to cancel the launch for today.

Another problem involved an apparent crack in the foam insulation covering the rocket. Engineers eventually determined that the rift and the chilled blasts of air emanating from the rift were similar to those observed during the Space Shuttle countdowns. NASA said this particular phenomenon would not be a show stopper.

The next launch opportunity is Friday, when a two-hour window opens at 12:48 p.m. ET (9:48 a.m. PT). “However, we will await a decision on what the plan is to fix the engine bleed and then move on from there,” said launch commentator Derrol Nail.

It’s not uncommon for such glitches to appear during preparations for a rocket’s first launch – and the Space Launch System is arguably the most complex and expensive rocket NASA and its commercial partners (led by Boeing) have launched since the Space have developed a shuttle program. Problems with the fueling system arose during dress rehearsals that were carried out in the past few months.

“We won’t launch until it’s right,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said after today’s cleanup. “It’s just by way of example that 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 done.”

Nelson noted that his own space shuttle launch, which occurred in 1986 while he was a member of Congress, encountered four scrubs. “If we had put on one of those smocks, it wouldn’t have been a good day,” he said.

Artemis 1’s mission plan calls for the SLS rocket, which is 15% more powerful than the Apollo-era Saturn V rocket, to launch an unmanned Orion capsule on a 42-day journey stretching up to 40,000 miles extends beyond the moon. Orion would go into circular lunar orbit and then return to a Pacific splashdown. One of the most important tests would come when Orion’s heat shield encounters temperatures rising to nearly 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit as it reenters the atmosphere.

Three sensor-laden mannequins in the Orion capsule would collect data on environmental conditions, including radiation levels, during the voyage.

NASA also plans to test an Alexa-style voice assistant developed by Amazon in collaboration with Cisco and Lockheed Martin. The voice-controlled AI system on Orion, nicknamed Callisto, could provide real-time information and guidance for future space crews heading to the Moon or Mars.

The data collected during the Artemis 1 mission would help NASA prepare for Artemis 2, which aims to send a crew of astronauts around the moon in the 2024 timeframe; and for Artemis 3, which aims to deliver astronauts to the lunar surface in 2025 or 2026. That would be the first manned moon landing since Apollo 17 in 1972.

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