Cape Canaveral, Florida.
A fuel leak and then an engine problem during final liftoff preparations led NASA to cancel Monday the launch of its mighty rocket to the new moon on its debut flight with three test dummies on board.
The next launch attempt won’t take place until Friday at the earliest and could be put on hold until next month.
The flight, when it happens, will be the first launch in NASA’s Artemis project, a quest to return astronauts to the moon since the Apollo program ended 50 years ago.
As the precious minutes of Monday morning ticked by, NASA repeatedly stopped and started fueling the Space Launch System rocket with nearly 1 million gallons of super-cold hydrogen and oxygen due to a highly explosive hydrogen leak. . The leak occurred in the same place that saw the leak during a dress rehearsal in the spring.
NASA then ran into new problems when it failed to properly cool one of the rocket’s four main engines, officials said. Engineers continued to work to identify the source of the problem after the launch postponement was announced.
“This is a very complicated machine, a very complicated system, and all of those things have to work, and you don’t want to light the candle until it’s ready to go,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson.
Referring to launch delays, Mr. Nelson said: “It’s just part of the space business and it’s part of, in particular, a test flight.”
The rocket was set to take off on a flight to propel a crew capsule into orbit around the moon. The six-week mission was scheduled to end with the capsule’s return to Earth for a splashdown in the Pacific in October.
The 322-foot (98-meter) spacecraft is the most powerful rocket ever built by NASA, surpassing even the Saturn V that the Apollo astronauts traveled on.
As for when NASA might make another liftoff attempt, launch commentator Derrol Nail said engineers were still looking into the engine problem and “we’ll have to wait to see what comes out of their test data.”
There were no astronauts inside the rocket’s Orion capsule. Instead, the test dummies, equipped with sensors to measure vibration, cosmic radiation and other conditions, were strapped in for the test flight, intended to test the spacecraft and push it to its limits in ways that would never be attempted with humans. on board. .
Although no one was on board, thousands of people packed the shoreline to watch the rocket rise. Vice President Kamala Harris was among the VIPs who arrived for the event.
Assuming the test flight goes well, the astronauts will prepare for the second mission and fly around the moon and back as soon as 2024. A two-person lunar landing could follow in late 2025.
The problems seen Monday were reminiscent of NASA’s space shuttle era, when hydrogen fuel leaks disrupted countdowns and delayed a series of launches in 1990.
Later in the morning, NASA officials also detected what they feared was a crack or some other defect in the core stage, the large orange fuel tank with four main engines, but later said it appeared to be just a buildup of frost on a crack in the insulation foam.
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 a launch.
Regardless of all the technical snags, the storms would have ultimately prevented a liftoff. Dark clouds gathered over the launch site as soon as Blackwell-Thompson stopped the countdown, with thunder echoing off the coast.
This story was reported by The Associated Press. 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.