NASA’s Artemis I fails to launch, delaying the premiere of Apollo’s successor
It's unclear if Artemis I will fly this week.
Artemis I will not go to the Moon today. But Friday is still a possibility.
On Monday, NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida was the center of public attention. The day marked the first launch attempt for its Artemis I mission, whose rocket stands taller than the Statue of Liberty and promised more thrust power than the Saturn V of the Apollo era. But the highly anticipated debut flight for NASA’s Artemis Program, which promises subsequent crewed flights to the lunar environment, was thwarted by a few problems.
The threat of precipitation and lighting might have eventually stalled the launch, Artemis mission manager Mike Sarafin admitted to a room filled with reporters at 1 p.m. Eastern. But an end to the fuel loading process at T-minus 40 minutes meant they’d never encounter it. The weather did delay tanking by about an hour, but then that got underway.
The dismaying problem appeared during fuel loading. Engine number three’s conditioning procedure did not work. Since it would not drop to an appropriate temperature, teams ran the risk of shocking the engine should they pump the ultra-frigid propellant through it.
Here’s the background — Although NASA had done four wet dress rehearsals to practice their fuel procedures, they didn’t finish terminal count during the latest one on June 20. Jim Free, the associate administrator for Exploration Systems Development Mission Directorate, said on Monday that the team didn’t need to do another test for a few reasons.
Free expressed that what they hadn’t yet faced could be addressed on launch day. A new wet dress rehearsal would demand unnecessary extra time and energy to recalibrate Artemis I for the test. And green run testing of the engines at Stennis Space Center in Mississippi produced results that made the team confident in what they might see on launch day. But what happened during the green run test is not what they saw today.
Free said they’ll be looking at the results of today’s launch attempt and see how and why both performances differed. Current data makes them relatively confident that the issue isn’t with the engine itself.
The hundreds of thousands of pounds of fuel would have sent the spacecraft on a trip around Earth to then slingshot towards the Moon for a 42-day journey. The massive quantity of cryogenic liquid oxygen and hydrogen funnels into Artemis I in more than one step.
Other problems — When the team went into the fast fill phase, they also encountered a leak on the eight-inch quick disconnect, the interface that connects the umbilical fuel line to the rocket. But they were able to move past this issue and it was largely mitigated, said Sarafin.
The propellant loading continued until the rocket's two main hubs for fuel were full. They are the core stage (the lower portion of the rocket) that would get the Moonshot started, and the Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage (the upper portion) that would take over the final leg of the trip.
Another headache was also an issue with a vent valve. NASA runs a blog to provide the public with ongoing Artemis updates, and on Monday the agency wrote that teams were assessing “a crack in the thermal protection system” on one of the engine connection joints within the core stage, known as a flange.
What’s next — “It’s too early to say what the options are,” Sarafin said. He said at 3:00 p.m. Eastern Tuesday there is a meeting to determine the next steps.
Sarafin said the team is tired, but they’ll rest now “to come back fresh tomorrow.”
They hope there’s no need to roll Artemis I back to KSC’s Vehicle Assembly Building.
Friday is the earliest that Artemis I could launch, although it might be a stretch considering today’s results. “We need time to look at all the data,” he said, adding they want to “play all nine innings and not give up yet” for an end-of-week flight.