ORLANDO, Fla. — All signs were pointing to optimism for NASA’s second shot at a moonshot on Saturday, but a familiar foe forced another scrub for the Artemis I flight from Kennedy Space Center, and now the rocket may be forced to head back to the Vehicle Assembly Building with its next launch opportunity uncertain.
“We will not be launching in this launch period,” said NASA’s Jim Free, associate administrator for the Exploration Systems Development Mission Directorate, saying no attempt would be made on Monday. “It’s definitely off the table.”
A liquid hydrogen leak detected during NASA’s attempts to load the Space Launch System rocket’s core stage with the required 733,000 gallons of cryogenic propellants had engineers scrambling to find a fix.
As the morning progressed toward the opening of an afternoon launch window, though, NASA’s three attempts to remedy the leak fell short eventually leading to NASA pulling the plug at 11:17 a.m.
“This is part of our space program. Be ready for the scrubs,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson. When Nelson flew on the space shuttle in 1986 as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, his mission was scrubbed four times. Two previous shuttle flights each had six scrubs before successful launches on try No. 7.
“So this is part of the space business,” he said.
Echoing comments from Monday’s scrub stating “we will go when it’s ready,” Nelson reiterated that Artemis I is a test, designed to prove the hardware can support human crew on future missions that aim to orbit the moon on Artemis II in 2024 and return humans including the first woman to the lunar surface on Artemis III as early as 2025.
NASA’s next available window runs Sept. 19-Oct. 4, but that would run up against the planned launch of a SpaceX Dragon for the Crew-5 mission to the International Space Station. After that, the windows run from Oct. 17-31, Nov. 12-27 and Dec. 9-23. Each window has only certain days during which the Earth and moon are in the right position for the mission.
Free said the teams would go through more data before making a target launch window decision, but did say they won’t compete with the SpaceX launch attempt that could be as early as Oct. 3.
“We need to make sure we deconflict with them, so that will weigh into into what we do,” Free said.
When it does lift off, the SLS would become the most powerful rocket to ever launch from Earth, generating 8.8 million pounds of thrust to send the Orion spacecraft on a multiweek mission to orbit the moon and head back to Earth at 24,500 mph, the fastest ever for a human-rated spacecraft that will endure temperatures near 5,000 degree Fahrenheit on reentry.
Nelson praised the launch team for making sure this test flight paves the way for future human missions.
“They do it right. They do it by the book. They do it very professionally,” he said. “These are human being lives on the top of that rocket and I can tell you when you strap into that rocket, you are very grateful that you’ve got a launch team like this, that knows what they’re doing and they’re not going to let you go until it’s time.”
Saturday’s attempt looked more likely following the mission management team’s run-through of data from issues that rose up during Monday’s scrub. Brevard County officials predicted up to 400,000 people might make their way to the Space Coast to check out the launch.
But the super-cooled liquid hydrogen continued to be a thorn in NASA’s side, as leaks in various lines had also stymied NASA’s wet dress rehearsals in April and June, and had even delayed part of Monday’s launch attempt.
Artemis mission manager Mike Sarafin said teams are debating repairs at the launch pad, but even if they can fix the issues there, current agreements with Space Launch Delta 45 will not let Artemis stay at the pad longer than 25 days without checking the batteries for its flight termination system, which is needed in an emergency during launch. That has to be done at the VAB.
“It is not our decision. It is the Range’s decision,” Sarafin said, “They’re the ones responsible for managing public safety.”
That said, there could be a waiver granted to extend Artemis I’s stay on the pad, but there are other limits on how long Artemis can stay at the pad that could come into play.
“As part of this initial test flight, we’re learning the vehicle, we’re learning how to operate the vehicle and we’re learning all of the things required to get us ready to fly,” Sarafin said. “We’ve demonstrated a large number of those things, not only through wet dress, and some of the other ground tests that we’ve had. But we we are still learning as we go again to get this vehicle off safely.”