After major setbacks, NASA fixes moon rocket leaks, looking for another launch

After the failed attempt to launch the Artemis -1, NASA is aiming for another launch attempt in September.

NASA is replacing leaking seals in its lunar rocket on the trail in hopes of launching it on its first test flight by the end of this month.

Managers said on Thursday they will conduct another test after the repairs to ensure all hydrogen fuel leaks are sealed. If that test goes well — and if the Space Force extends a flight safety waiver — NASA could make another attempt to launch the 322-foot rocket in late September. Otherwise, the rocket will return to the hangar for additional work, delaying the launch until at least October.

A series of hydrogen fuel leaks and other issues halted successive 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 orbit around the moon for a test flight, before astronauts are put on the next flight in 2024. That around-the-moon mission would pave the way for the first human moon landing in 50 years, currently planned for 2025.

“We need to get the tank test done and then we have to look at what the realism and planning is” to make a launch attempt as early as Sept. 23, said Jim Free, who is responsible for developing NASA’s reconnaissance systems.

To launch in late September, NASA will need the OR from the Space Force at Cape Canaveral, which oversees the rocket’s self-destruct system. Batteries are needed to activate the system if the missile goes off course towards populated areas. These batteries have to be retested periodically and that can only be done in the hangar. The military would have to extend certification of those batteries by two weeks or more to avoid moving the missile back to the hangar.

But every time the rocket moves between the hangar and the launch pad, it adds “routine wear and tear, and I don’t want to do that” unless it’s necessary, chief engineer John Blevins said. There have already been three trips to the pad this year for practice countdowns and, most recently, the August 29 and Saturday thwarted launch attempts.

Engineers are hopeful that replacing a few seals in the hydrogen fuel lines at the bottom of the rocket will fix any lingering leaks.

As an added precaution, the launch team is planning “a kinder and gentler approach to refueling” during the final phase of the countdown, sometimes slowing fuel flow to reduce pressure on the seals, said program manager Mike Bolger.

“We are optimistic that we can solve this problem,” he told reporters.

NASA’s new lunar exploration program is years late and billions over budget and 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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