On Friday, NASA announced that the third wet dress rehearsal — a thorough run-through of a launch, including fueling, without actually lifting off — of the Artemis 1 cabin and launch vehicle had experienced a propellant problem, setting back the timeline another week for the Moon-bound rocket.
The mission, which is an uncrewed Orion capsule atop a Space Launch System (SLS) rocket intended for a quick trip around the Moon before humans launch aboard Artemis 2, has seen a series of stumbles in its wet dress rehearsal phase. This is when ground control acts as if it’s launch day by performing a series of drills and contingencies.
During its third wet dress rehearsal, liquid hydrogen leak on the Tail Service Mast Unit made it unsafe to continue the test, especially due to the proximity to liquid oxygen. The umbilical plate, a connection between the central rocket and its smaller tanks on the side, had a small leak of liquid hydrogen.
“The mega-Moon rocket is fine,” Mike Sarafin, Artemis mission manager, said in a press conference on Friday. “All the issues we’re encountering are procedural and lessons learned, with the exception of the cryoplate and we’ve got to go look at the umbilical plate.”
The Artemis team is planning to run a new wet dress rehearsal on Thursday, April 21. This places the test close to the launch of the Crew-4 mission to the ISS on April 23, which could provide some logistical challenges.
Though the umbilical plate proved to be a big issue, Charlie Blackwell-Thompson, Artemis launch director, says that most other parts of the dress rehearsal went according to plan.
“While we did not get all the way through the planned activities, we still accomplished quite a bit,” she says.
The plan for the Artemis team is to first look at what sorts of resolutions they can try on a simple level before taking more drastic measures.
“In terms of what the troubleshooting plan is, we’re kinda breaking it down into a series of low-hanging fruit options — things that are readily accessible,” Sarafin says. If those options don’t resolve the issue, they will need to explore “more invasive options.”
The successive failures of the wet dress rehearsal make it harder for NASA to pin down a launch date for Artemis 1, which is slated (theoretically) to launch next month. A delay in the launch of Artemis 1 will have a knock-on effect on Artemises 2 and 3, both slated for 2024. Artemis 2 will send a crew around the Moon and back, while Artemis 3 will see boots on the ground on lunar soil for the first time since 1972.