CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) – A fuel leak and then an engine problem during final preparations for launch prompted NASA to scrub the launch of its mighty new moon rocket Monday morning during a shakedown flight with three test dummies on board.
The next launch attempt will be Friday at the earliest.
As precious minutes ticked away, NASA repeatedly stopped and started refueling the Space Launch System rocket with nearly 1 million gallons of super-cold hydrogen and oxygen because of a leak of highly explosive hydrogen in the same place that saw it seep in a dress rehearsal back in the spring. .
Then NASA ran into new problems when it failed to properly cool one of the rocket’s four main engines, officials said. Engineers continued to work on collecting data and pinpointing the cause of the problem after the launch delay was announced.
The rocket would lift off for a mission to launch a crew pod into orbit around the moon. The launch marks a milestone in America’s quest to get astronauts back on the lunar surface for the first time since the end of the Apollo program 50 years ago.
The 98-meter spacecraft is the most powerful rocket ever built by NASA, surpassing even the Saturn V that took the Apollo astronauts to the moon.
As for when NASA could make another launch attempt, launch commentator Derrol Nail said the issue is still under analysis, and “we’ll have to wait and see what comes out of their test data.”
There were no astronauts in the rocket’s Orion capsule. Instead, the test dummies, equipped with sensors to measure vibration, cosmic rays and other conditions, were strapped in for the six-week mission, which was scheduled to end with the capsule’s landing in the Pacific Ocean in October.
Although no one was on board, thousands of people blocked the shore to watch the rocket rise. Vice President Kamala Harris was expected among the VIPs.
The launch, if it happens, will be the first flight in NASA’s 21st-century lunar exploration program, named Artemis after the mythological twin sister of Apollo.
Assuming the test goes well, astronauts will climb aboard for the second flight as early as 2024 and fly around the moon and back. A two-person landing on the moon could follow by the end of 2025.
The problems observed Monday were reminiscent of the NASA era of the space shuttle, when hydrogen fuel leakage disrupted the countdown and delayed a series of launches in 1990.
Later in the morning, NASA officials also saw what they feared was a crack or other defect in the core stage — the large orange fuel tank with four main engines on it — but they later said it appeared to be just a buildup of frost.
Launch director Charlie Blackwell-Thompson and her team also faced a communications problem with the Orion capsule.
Engineers struggled to understand an 11-minute delay in communication lines between launch control and Orion that surfaced late Sunday. Although the problem was fixed Monday morning, NASA needed to know why it was happening before launching.
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