NASA rocket test runs into trouble ahead of first US moon launch since Apollo

First, thunderstorms delayed the weekend’s dress rehearsal for NASA’s mega rocket, the last crucial step before launching it to the moon.

Then lightning struck “twice” for the simulation test – figuratively speaking.

Mission operators said they had to abort Sunday’s rehearsal in the middle of Sunday’s rehearsal to fix a problem in the mobile tower that carries the rocket known as the Space Launch System on the ground. A fan keeping dangerous gases out of the launch vehicle was not working. When it failed, the techs tried using a backup fan to continue, only to find it didn’t work either. Each had a different problem, officials said.

The fans are designed to prevent gases that could cause a fire from entering the launch pad during the fueling process, said Charlie Blackwell-Thompson, launch director at Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla. This is referred to as “over pressurization”.

Without the fan system, the NASA team didn’t think it was safe to put the propellant into the rocket.

“We decided we really wanted to understand this as it was the first time the vehicle had been loaded and we decided to step back to do some configuration to fix the problem and then be ready to to try again,” she said during a briefing with reporters on Sunday.

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On Monday, the space agency appeared to have the fan issue resolved and ready to continue the dress rehearsal.

NASA is preparing the 32-story, 5.75 million-pound rocket for a mission to the moon known as Artemis I. It’s the first in a series of space exploration voyages that could launch as early as May. The upcoming launch will not involve astronauts, but the month-long flight will allow the United States to send a crew on the next, more complex mission, Artemis II.

The rocket is believed to be the most expensive ever built, with each launch estimated at over $4 billion.

It’s been a long time since NASA had a rocket of this magnitude capable of sending large payloads — astronauts and cargo — into space. Not only is the Space Launch System (SLS) built for the journey to the moon, it is also expected to one day add millions of miles to the odometer on the first manned flight to Mars. Scientific robotic trips to Saturn and Jupiter could also be in his future.

At its Florida launch pad, the fully assembled rocket carrying the Orion spacecraft will undergo a two-day demonstration during which the rocket will be filled with liquid fuel, a countdown will be practiced, stopping just before ignition, and the tanks will be emptied.


Credit: NASA/Ben Smegelsky

The four main engines, running on 700,000 gallons of super-cold fuel, will produce thrust powerful enough to keep eight Boeing 747s aloft. Filling the huge tanks takes about eight hours.

Only after successfully completing this so-called “wet dress rehearsal” will NASA set a date for the first lunar mission, agency heads said. Officials said Artemis could take off as early as May, although given the tight schedule, it’s more likely to happen this summer.

As of Sunday night, NASA didn’t believe the storms and lightning near the launch pad had anything to do with the fan malfunction. Mission officials said the system ran normally during the bad weather.

When NASA said it was “going” to stock up on fuel, it wasn’t immediately clear to the public how the agency was addressing the overnight fan issue.

Artemis mission manager Mike Sarafin told reporters Sunday the events surrounding the rocket probe, including four lightning strikes around the launch pad the previous day, were unusual.

“It was one of the most interesting 48 hours I’ve had related to pre-launch work missions, and in this case a key test,” he said.

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