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Fuel Leak Disrupts NASA Moon Rocket Launch Countdown

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida. (AP) — A fuel leak interrupted NASA’s new moon launch countdown early Monday and reappeared in the same spot that spotted the leak during a spring dress rehearsal.

Launch controllers halted the tanking operation, which was already running an hour late due to offshore thunderstorms. They resumed the process slowly to confirm that it was, in fact, a hydrogen fuel leak and not faulty sensors, but the alarms forced another temporary pause as the precious minutes of the countdown passed.

The 322-foot (98-meter) rocket is the most powerful ever built by NASA, surpassing even the Saturn V that carried astronauts to the moon half a century ago.

This test flight, if successful, would put a manned capsule into lunar orbit for the first time in 50 years.

There were no astronauts inside the Orion capsule atop the rocket at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. Instead, three test dummies were strapped in for the lunar orbit mission, which is expected to last six weeks.

Even with no one on board, thousands of people packed the shoreline to watch the Space Launch System, or SLS, rocket fly off. Vice President Kamala Harris flew to Orlando with her husband, but she had not yet made the hour-long drive to Cape Canaveral for the planned takeoff.

The next launch attempt wouldn’t be until Friday at the earliest.

Hydrogen fuel leaks botched NASA’s countdown test in April, prompting a slew of repairs. The demo was repeated with more success in June, but that too saw some leaks. Managers said they wouldn’t know for sure whether the solutions were any good until they tried to load the rocket’s tanks with nearly 1 million gallons of supercold fuel on Monday.

Launch manager Charlie Blackwell-Thompson and her team also had to deal with a communication problem related to the Orion capsule.

Engineers were quick to understand an 11-minute delay in communication lines between Launch Control and Orion that surfaced Sunday night. Although the issue was fixed Monday morning, NASA needed to know why it happened before committing to launch.

This first flight of NASA’s 21st-century lunar exploration program, named Artemis after Apollo’s mythological twin sister, is years behind schedule. Repeated delays have led to billions in budget overruns; This demo alone costs $4.1 billion.

Assuming the test goes well, the astronauts would climb aboard for the second flight and fly around the moon and return as soon as 2024. A two-person lunar landing could follow in late 2025. NASA is targeting the south pole of the moon.

During Apollo, 12 astronauts landed on the moon from 1969 to 1972, with stays of no more than a few days. NASA is looking to set up a lunar base during Artemis, with astronauts coming and going for weeks. The next step would be Mars, possibly in the late 2030s or early 2040s.

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The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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