ORLANDO, Fla. — NASA completed nearly all of its goals with the latest wet dress rehearsal of its Artemis I moon rocket this week at Kennedy Space Center, but without a 100% completion, managers said they need to juggle these results with previous tests done on the rocket to see if they can move forward with a launch attempt.
Teams were able to complete late Monday the filling and draining of 730,000 gallons of super-cooled liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen on the 5.75 million-pound, 322-foot-tall combination of the Space Launch System, Orion capsule and mobile launcher sitting at Launch Pad 39-B. It was the fourth attempt to complete what was hoped to be the final major test before attempting to launch the uncrewed flight to orbit the moon.
A new hydrogen leak on an umbilical running from the mobile launcher to the core stage, though, forced changes near the end of the test so managers couldn’t get the countdown down to the goal of 9 seconds on the clock. The test concluded at T-29 seconds.
If it had been a real launch, the leak would have forced a scrub through automated protection systems in place, so it’s definitely something that needs to be fixed before any launch attempt. It was also a leak that went undetected on previous test runs, because those were scrubbed earlier in the tanking process.
“We talk about being pieces of a puzzle and the delicate dance. We got through the dance, and we’re now looking at the pieces of the puzzle, to decide what are the pieces that we didn’t get,” said Tom Whitmeyer, NASA’s deputy associate administrator for Common Exploration Systems Development. “But we also got an awful lot of pieces to the puzzle put together. We have pretty good idea what the puzzle looks like at this point.”
Whitmeyer points out that some of the check boxes that NASA was looking to complete have actually already been performed, such as when the core stage went through its 2021 hot fire run at Stennis Space Center in Mississippi that simulated the engine burn of more than eight minutes that will be performed when the rocket finally does lift off from KSC.
NASA’s SLS chief engineer John Blevins noted that these rehearsals are a benefit despite the threat of more delays as they reduce the risk of surprises come launch day. So that could mean more tests are in order.
“The reality is we’re going to go back and look at all these objectives including the secondary objectives and there are some that we didn’t achieve and look at the risk of not doing those and what that means to a successful launch day,” Blevins said. “We will have either a successful launch or a scrub because we have protection in the system already for those objectives that we didn’t meet should they not perform properly on launch day. So they’re not really about making the vehicle safer to fly. They’re really about can we hit the launch target to the window that’s optimum for our lunar mission.”
Managers would not commit to saying whether or not a potential August launch date was still on the table, but would likely come back with more information in a couple of days.
As far as the rocket goes, its next step is a rollback to the Vehicle Assembly Building. If the decision is made to go for launch, its next trip to the launch pad could be its last before the planned flight to send the Orion capsule farther into space than any other human-rated spacecraft has ever traveled — 280,000 miles away, which is 40,000 miles beyond the moon.
When it launches, the rocket will become the most powerful to lift off from Earth producing 8.8 million pounds of thrust. NASA is looking to pave the way for the crewed Artemis II mission in 2024 that will also orbit the moon, but not land. It isn’t until 2025 at the earliest that Artemis III would send two crewmembers to the lunar surface including the first woman on the moon.
The earliest launch opportunities for Artemis I, though, are in windows that run July 26-Aug. 10, Aug. 23-Sept. 6, Sept. 20-Oct. 4, Oct. 17-31, Nov. 12-27 and Dec. 9-23. Each window has only certain days during which the Earth and moon are in the right position for the planned mission.