Technical glitches complicate NASA’s massive Artemis moon mission

Orlando Sentinel via Getty

Orlando Sentinel via Getty

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. — Crowds of concerned onlookers who crowded Florida’s space coast early Monday will have to wait until at least Friday (and possibly longer) to see NASA’s acclaimed Artemis 1 lunar mission lift off.

Originally scheduled to launch within a two-hour window that opened at 8:33 a.m. local time, Artemis failed to catch a break. A number of issues surfaced before the launch control team decided to pull out.

At 12:40 a.m., the threat of lightning delayed refueling the giant Space Launch System (SLS) rocket with 730,000 gallons of super-cold liquid hydrogen and oxygen. Launch rules do not allow fuel loading when storms are within five miles and there is a greater than 20 percent chance of lightning.

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Then the team struggled with what appeared to be a hydrogen leak and a possible crack in the SLS tank. Both problems were eventually resolved. Eventually, sensors detected a liquid hydrogen engine “bleed,” where one of the rocket’s engines was not cooling at the same rate as the others. The vent is designed to lower the temperature of all four engines to keep them from being damaged by the super-cold fuel flowing through them.

“We weren’t able to get a good temperature on all four engines,” said Derrol Nail, launch spokesman at Kennedy. Engine cold was something NASA “wanted to test” during a previous wet dress rehearsal, but was unable to do so due to a leak in another device on the rocket. “So that was the team’s first opportunity to see this live in action,” Nail said. “Setting that temperature is a particularly tricky problem.”

Minutes after a peel was finally announced, a massive thunderstorm engulfed SLS and the rest of the launch pad. It seems unlikely anyway that a launch could have taken place in such weather conditions.

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Vice President Kamala Harris was originally scheduled to appear at the media center and discuss US leadership in space exploration and the importance of the Artemis Project. The Vice President chairs the National Space Council.

More than 700 members of the media were accredited to cover the launch and many slept in their cars because most hotels in the area had been booked months in advance. Between 100,000 and 200,000 people drove to the Space Coast late Sunday and early Monday to see the clogged roads when the scrub was announced. Cell phone text messages could not be sent for hours due to the congested radio spectrum in Brevard County.

With its huge SLS fuel tank, two solid rocket boosters and Orion scout vehicle, Artemis 1 is the tallest and most powerful spacecraft ever built, standing 32 stories tall and capable of 5.8 million pounds of thrust. But it’s never flown, and that’s why NASA is extra cautious about even the tiniest rash.

The $4.1 billion mission is an unmanned test of the Orion craft to orbit the moon and return home with a splashdown in the Pacific. The company is setting the stage for an eventual return of astronauts to the lunar surface in about three years, followed by a trip to Mars in the late 2030s. The next launch attempt is tentatively scheduled for Friday at 12:28 p.m. EDT, but NASA has yet to determine if today’s issues will be resolved in time for that date.

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