NASA takes 1 Artemis launch date off the board, considers another
Orlando Sentinel September 13, 2022
ORLANDO, Fla. — NASA is pushing back a test of fixes on the launch pad for Artemis I to later in September, which has taken one potential launch date off the board.
NASA announced late Monday it would delay the cryogenic tanking test to make sure the feed lines that run from the mobile launcher into the massive Space Launch System rocket no longer leak. That test will now be no earlier than Sept. 21, pushed four days from the original plans.
The delay means that a launch on Sept. 23 is off the table, but plans are still in play to shoot for Sept. 27 while also looking at an opportunity for Oct. 2.
Both dates would still require the U.S. Space Force’s Space Launch Delta 45 to grant a waiver to NASA regarding the flight termination system on the rocket. SLD 45 runs the Eastern Range, the area over which the rocket would launch, and the self-destruct mechanism is essential if something goes awry with the rocket, similar to how Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin lost a New Shepard booster on launch Monday.
The current agreement between NASA and the Eastern Range is for the batteries on the flight termination system to be checked every 25 days, which would require NASA to have to roll the SLS to the Vehicle Assembly Building since they have not been checked since before Aug. 16. That’s when the crawler-transporter 2 took the 4-mile journey to bring the 5.75 million-pound, 322-foot-tall combination of the SLS, mobile launcher and Orion spacecraft to Launch Pad 39-B.
Rolls to and from the launch pad, though, can stress the vehicle, managers said in a press conference last week, so if they can avoid it in favor of a launch opportunity, that is their preference but will defer to the Space Force’s safety decision if required.
“NASA is continuing to respect the Eastern Range’s process for review of the agency’s request for an extension of the current testing requirement for the flight termination system and is providing additional information and data as needed,” NASA stated in an update on its website. “In parallel, the agency is continuing preparations for the cryogenic demonstration test and potential launch opportunities, should the request be approved.”
Artemis I is the first in a series of flights that aims to return humans to the lunar surface and pave the way for humans to land on Mars. The uncrewed mission looks to send the Orion spacecraft to orbit the moon several times on a multi-week journey before splashing down in the Pacific Ocean.
The flight is meant to make sure the capsule can withstand the nearly 5,000 degrees generated from what would be the fastest-ever return of a human-rated spacecraft to Earth coming in at 24,500 mph. That would pave the way for a crewed Artemis II flight to orbit the moon in 2024 and then Artemis III as early as 2025 during which two astronauts including the first woman would return to the moon’s surface for the first time since the Apollo missions ended in 1972.
If they do get the opportunity to launch, the Tuesday, Sept. 27 chance would be a 70-minute window that opens at 11:37 a.m. that would fly on a 40-day mission that would land back on Earth on Nov. 5. The Sunday, Oct. 2 chance would have a 109-minute window that opens at 2:52 p.m. and fly for a 41-day mission and land on Nov. 11.
The Oct. 2 launch date, though, is close to SpaceX’s planned launch of a Falcon 9 rocket topped with a Crew Dragon to fly four passengers up to the International Space Station for the Crew-5 rotational mission. That liftoff from KSC’s nearby Launch Pad 39-A is slated for no earlier than 12:45 p.m. Oct. 3.
“Teams are working the upcoming commercial crew launch in parallel to the Artemis I planning and both launch schedules will continue to be assessed over the coming weeks,” NASA stated. “NASA and SpaceX will review the Artemis I and Crew-5 prelaunch processing milestones to understand any potential impacts.”
The Artemis attempt will mark NASA’s third try to get this mission off the ground after scrubs on Aug. 29 and Sept. 3. The most recent scrub came after a leak did not allow NASA to fill the core stage of SLS with the 537,000 gallons of liquid hydrogen needed along with the 196,000 gallons of liquid oxygen that will along with two solid rocket boosters give SLS 8.8 million pounds of thrust on liftoff.
When it launches, it will be the most powerful rocket to have ever lifted off from Earth.
Smaller liquid hydrogen leaks were present during the first launch attempt as well as during two wet dress rehearsals earlier this year. After the most recent gremlin, NASA chose to perform fixes at the launch pad so they could use cryogenic fuel to make sure it will work come launch day. A rollback to the VAB would not have allowed such a test.
The teams will also complete what’s called a kick-start bleed test during which the liquid hydrogen is used to cool down the four RS-25 engines to minus 423 degrees Fahrenheit so that they’re not stressed when the cryogenic fuel begins flowing through them at launch. A malfunctioning sensor said one of the four engines was about 40 degrees shy of the target temperature, and that led managers to scrub the first try to fly Artemis I, although review of the data led them to believe that the engines were all adequately chilled.
Still, they have yet to perform a verification bleed test, so that will be part of the cryo testing on the pad later the month.
“The updated dates represent careful consideration of multiple logistical topics, including the additional value of having more time to prepare for the cryogenic demonstration test, and subsequently more time to prepare for the launch,” NASA said. “The dates also allow managers to ensure teams have enough rest and to replenish supplies of cryogenic propellants.”
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