Cape Canaveral, Fla. (AP) — NASA’s Amavasha rocket suffered another fatal fuel leak Saturday, forcing rocket controllers to abort their second attempt this week to send a crewed capsule with test dummies into lunar orbit. The inaugural flight is now stalled for at least a few weeks, if not months.
An earlier attempt to launch the 322-foot (98-meter) Space Launch System rocket, the most powerful ever built by NASA, was also troubled by minor hydrogen leaks. This is on top of leaks detected during the countdown exercise earlier in the year.
After the latest setback, mission managers decided to tow the rocket from the pad into the hangar for further repairs and system updates. Some work and tests can be done on the pad before moving the rocket.
With the two-week launch blackout period coming up in a few days, the rocket is now set to land by the end of this month or until October. NASA will work around the high-priority SpaceX space flight to the International Space Station, scheduled for early October.
NASA Administrator Bill Nelson stressed that safety should be a priority, especially on a test mission like this, where everyone wants to check the rocket’s systems, “before we put four people on top of it.”
“Remember: We’re not going to start until it’s fixed,” he said.
NASA has already been waiting years to send a crew capsule on a rocket around the moon. If the six-week demo is successful, astronauts could fly around the moon in 2024 and land in 2025. People last walked on the moon 50 years ago.
Launch Director Charlie Blackwell-Thompson and his crew had barely begun loading nearly 1 million gallons of fuel into the Space Launch System rocket before daylight when a large leak occurred in the engine compartment below.
Ground controllers tried to contain it the way they had handled previous spills: stopping and restarting the flow of super-cold liquid hydrogen in hopes of closing the gap around the seal in the supply line. They tried it twice, actually, and purged the helium through the line. But the leak persisted.
After three to four hours of futile efforts Blackwell-Thompson finally stopped the countdown.
Mission Manager Mike Sarafin told reporters it was too early to tell what caused the leak, but it may have been caused by an inadvertent overpressurization of the hydrogen line when commands were sent to the wrong valve that morning.
“This is not a manageable spill,” Sarafin said.
During Monday’s attempt, small, unrelated hydrogen leaks appeared on the rocket. Technicians tightened the fittings over the following days, but Blackwell-Thompson cautioned that he won’t know if everything is tight until Saturday’s refueling.
Hydrogen molecules are very small – the smallest in existence – and even the tiniest gap or fissure provides a way through. NASA’s space shuttles, now retired, suffered from hydrogen leaks. The Amavasai rocket uses the same type of core engines.
In one more problem Monday, a sensor indicated that one of the rocket’s four engines was overheating, but engineers later verified that it was actually cool enough. The launch team plans to ignore the faulty sensor for the time being and rely on other instruments to ensure each main engine is properly cooled. But the countdown didn’t get that far.
Mission managers accepted the additional risk posed by the engine problem and a separate problem: cracks in the rocket’s insulating foam. But they acknowledged other problems – such as a fuel leak – could prompt another delay.
Thousands of people thronged the beach hoping to see a Space Launch System rocket lift off. Local officials were expecting massive crowds because of the long Labor Day weekend.
The $4.1 billion test flight is the first step in NASA’s Artemis program for renewed lunar exploration, named after Apollo’s twin sister in Greek mythology.
Years in the planning and billions in budget, Artemis aims to establish a human presence on the moon, with crews eventually spending weeks there. It is considered a training ground for Mars.
In 1972, 12 astronauts walked on the moon during the Apollo program.
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