Estimated reading time 4 minutes 4 Min

Fuel leak ruins NASA’s 2nd attempt at launching moon rocket

NASA was forced to call off a second moon launch attempt when its Artemis rocket sprang another dangerous fuel leak, pushing any possible launch back to October.

September 4, 2022
By Marcia Dunn
4 September 2022

NASA’s new moon rocket sprang another dangerous fuel leak on Saturday, forcing launch controllers to call off their second attempt this week to send a crew capsule into lunar orbit with test dummies. The inaugural flight is now off for weeks, if not months.

The previous try on Monday at launching the 98m Space Launch System rocket, the most powerful ever built by NASA, was also troubled by hydrogen leaks, though they were smaller. That was on top of leaks detected during countdown drills earlier in the year.

After the latest setback, mission managers decided to haul the rocket off the pad and into the hangar for further repairs and system updates.

Some of the work and testing may be performed at the pad before the rocket is moved. Either way, several weeks of work will be needed, according to officials.

NASA’s new moon rocket is illuminated by xenon lights as she sits on Launch Pad 39-B hours ahead of the scrubbed planned launch on Saturday. (Chris O’Meara/AP)

With a two-week launch blackout period looming in just a few days, the rocket is now grounded until late September or October. NASA will work around a high-priority SpaceX astronaut flight to the International Space Station scheduled for early October.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson stressed that safety was the top priority, especially on a test flight like this where everyone wants to verify the rocket’s systems “before we put four humans up on the top of it”.

“Just remember: We’re not going to launch until it’s right,” he said.

NASA already has been waiting years to send the crew capsule atop the rocket around the moon. If the six-week demo succeeds, astronauts could fly around the moon in 2024 and land on it in 2025. People last walked on the moon 50 years ago.

Launch director Charlie Blackwell-Thompson and her team had barely started loading about 3.7 million litres of fuel into the Space Launch System rocket at daybreak when the leak cropped up in the engine section at the bottom.

Ground controllers tried to plug it the way they handled previous leaks: stopping and restarting the flow of super-cold liquid hydrogen in hopes of closing the gap around a seal in the supply line. They tried that twice, in fact, and also flushed helium through the line. But the leak persisted.

Blackwell-Thompson finally halted the countdown after three to four hours of futile effort.

During Monday’s launch attempt, hydrogen fuel escaped from elsewhere in the rocket. Technicians tightened up the fittings over the past week, but Blackwell-Thompson cautioned that she wouldn’t know whether everything was tight until Saturday’s fueling.

Hydrogen molecules are exceedingly small — the smallest in existence — and even the tiniest gap or crevice can provide a way out. NASA’s space shuttles, now retired, were plagued by hydrogen leaks. The new moon rocket uses the same type of main engines.

Even more of a problem on Monday, a sensor indicated one of the rocket’s four engines was too warm, but engineers later verified it actually was cold enough.

The launch team planned to ignore the faulty sensor this time around and rely on other instruments to ensure each main engine was properly chilled. But the countdown never got that far.

The NASA moon rocket stands on Pad 39B before the Artemis 1 mission was scrubbed for a second time. (Brynn Anderson/AP)

Mission managers accepted the additional risk posed by the engine issue as well as a separate problem: cracks in the rocket’s insulating foam. But they acknowledged other trouble – like fuel leaks – could prompt yet another delay.

That didn’t stop thousands from jamming the coast to see the Space Launch System rocket soar. Local authorities expected massive crowds because of the long Labor Day holiday weekend.

The $4.1 billion test flight is the first step in NASA’s Artemis program of renewed lunar exploration, named after the twin sister of Apollo in Greek mythology.

Twelve astronauts walked on the moon during NASA’s Apollo program, the last time in 1972.
Artemis – years behind schedule and billions over budget – aims to establish a sustained human presence on the moon, with crews eventually spending weeks at a time there. It’s considered a training ground for Mars.

More in The Planet