CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida. — NASA began fueling its new moon rocket early Monday to lift off on a test flight to put a crew capsule into lunar orbit for the first time in 50 years.
Electrical storms delay the fueling operation by one hour. The threat of lightning diminished enough to allow the launch team to proceed with loading the rocket’s tanks. But it was unclear how much the two-hour launch window could shorten stalled work.
No one was inside the Orion capsule atop the 322-foot (98-meter) rocket at the Kennedy Space Center. Instead, three test dummies were strapped in for the lunar orbit mission, which is expected to last six weeks.
It is the most powerful rocket ever built by NASA, surpassing the Saturn V that carried astronauts to the moon half a century ago. Thousands of people packed the shoreline to watch the Space Launch System, or SLS, rocket fly off.
Rain lashed the launch site as the launch team finally began loading more than 1 million gallons of super-cold fuel into the rocket. Forecasters remained optimistic that the sky would clear by launch time later in the morning; the rocket is forbidden to fly in the rain.
In addition to the weather, launch manager Charlie Blackwell-Thompson and her team were dealing 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.
The launch team was also wary of any persistent fuel leaks. A couple of countdown tests earlier this year uncovered not only leaks but other technical issues as well. NASA officials said they couldn’t be sure of repairs until the final phase of the countdown.
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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