(ORDO NEWS) — What went wrong with Artemis I? The failure happened on the launch pad at Kennedy Space Center, so NASA decided to try and fix it on the spot.
On Tuesday, mission leaders announced that they would not be returning the already connected Space Launch System rocket, Orion capsule and mobile launcher, all together weighing 5.75 million pounds and 322 feet high, to the vehicle assembly block.
Instead, the vehicles will remain at Launch Pad 39-B so NASA can investigate the cause of Saturday’s cancellation, which was NASA’s second attempt to send Artemis I uncrewed on a multi-week mission to the Moon.
This will be the first step towards returning humans, including the first woman, to the surface of the moon for the first time since 1972.
The most recent problem in the $4.1 billion rocket was another leak of cryogenic liquid hydrogen in the propellant line that runs from the mobile launcher to the SLS main stage.
Similar problems were observed in bench tests of the rocket back in April and June, as well as during the first launch attempt. NASA decided to replace the seal on the connector, also called a quick connector, right on the launch pad.
The solution is not easy, as it requires the installation of a fence around the work area so that the environment cannot damage the equipment. If NASA were to return to the Vehicle Assembly Facility, the same work would be done, but in a more controlled work environment.
But NASA can’t test the BSA fix. They can only carry out cryogenic fuel loading at the launch pad, and since that was what ultimately thwarted the last launch, NASA opted for launch pad repairs.
“Performing site work also allows teams to collect as much data as possible to understand the cause of the problem,” the NASA website said in a statement.
In addition, NASA teams will check for possible leaks on the other six main umbilicals leading to the SLS.
Prior to launch, the main stage is to be filled with 537,000 gallons of liquid hydrogen and 196,000 gallons of liquid oxygen to help fuel the four RS-25 engines at the base of the main stage, which, together with two solid rocket boosters, will provide 8.8 million pounds of thrust at SLS launch. This would make the SLS the most powerful rocket ever launched from Earth.
The cancellation forced NASA to skip the launch window, which ended on Tuesday. The next window will be from September 19 to October 4, but NASA has faced several obstacles.
The largest is NASA’s current deal with Space Launch Delta 45, which operates the Eastern Missile Range, which has only given Artemis I a 25-day window before the batteries in its self-destruct mechanism, called the flight abort system, require testing. They can only be checked and recharged in the BSA.
This limitation will force NASA to change plans. It will take several weeks before the rocket can return to the pad. NASA may do so anyway after the launch pad is fixed to “carry out additional work that does not require the use of launch pad-only cryogenic facilities,” according to NASA.
The second concern is the upcoming Crew-5 mission, which is to send four passengers to the International Space Station aboard a SpaceX Crew Dragon aboard a Falcon 9 rocket, launching from nearby launch pad 39-A. NASA officials said they would not make any launch attempts that could delay the Crew-5 mission, which is due to launch no earlier than October 3.
The managers did discuss the possibility of requesting permission from the Eastern Missile Range to remain on the site beyond the 25 day deadline. If work on the launch site is quickly completed, there may still be a possibility of a launch in the first half of the September window.
“As a reminder, we are not going to launch until everything is perfect,” NASA administrator Bill Nelson said at a press conference on Saturday. “This is standard procedure, and it remains so for now.”
This may mean waiting for windows from October 17th to 31st, from November 12th to 27th and from December 9th to 23rd inclusive. In each window, there are only certain days during which the Earth and Moon are in the correct position for the mission.
The first launch cancellation occurred on 29 August after a small liquid hydrogen leak on another line took several hours to fix. Then there was a problem with the sensor, which incorrectly read the temperature of the engine.
NASA’s Jim Free, deputy administrator for the Mission’s Office of Exploration Systems Development, said the second attempt was not taken lightly and managers were confident they would not run into the same problems. In the end, the cancellation was the right decision, reminding people that this was only a test flight.
“We talked about how this mission is risky,” he said. “But we are going to take a meaningful risk that we know that has already taken the technique and the system as far as it can go at launch. When the time is right, we will be ready.”
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