NASA engineers believe they’re zeroing in on the issues that led to scrubbing the Monday launch of the Artemis I mission, the first in a multi-phase program to return to the moon, and are gearing up for another attempt on Saturday.
A number of issues arose, and were addressed, in the extensive pre-launch preparations on Monday. But NASA said a critical process to cool down the repurposed Space Shuttle engines that power the massive Space Launch System before ignition ran into trouble that couldn’t be overcome in time to make the narrow, two-hour launch window.
During a Tuesday press conference, a panel of NASA administrators and technicians said they believe a faulty temperature sensor in one of the four engines may be to blame and are confident they can come up with a workaround in time to be ready for another two-hour launch window that opens Saturday at 2:17 p.m. EDT.
NASA’s Artemis mission manager Mike Sarafin said the launch teams worked Tuesday to assess what they knew about the technical glitches and are planning some minor modifications to the rocket system as it remains on the launch pad at Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida. There is also a plan in place to modify the engine cool-down process, known as “thermal conditioning”, that will include starting the procedure earlier in the pre-launch schedule.
“We had a couple of challenges we encountered that ultimately ended up in a scrub of the first launch attempt for Artemis I,” Sarafin said during the new conference. “We came back and reviewed the data from the Monday launch attempt and met today as a mission management team with our operations and engineering teams ... and agreed to move our launch date to Saturday, Sept. 3.”
While NASA officials expressed confidence in being ready for a Saturday launch on the technical front, launch weather officer Mike Berger noted the weather outlook for central Florida on Saturday is a mixed bag.
Berger said the probability for a weather “violation” of the launch window currently stands at 60%, but said he was still “optimistic we’ll have at least some clear air to work with during the attempt on Saturday.”
The crewless Artemis I mission is scheduled to run for 42 days on a flight that will allow NASA experts to test the new SLS components, many of which have been repurposed from the old Space Shuttle program and other systems, as well as the Orion space capsule.
That capsule, the eventual home for future space travelers, will be carried into lunar orbit where it will take a spin around the moon and then head back to earth for a fiery plunge through the atmosphere at some 25,000 mph before splashing down in the Pacific Ocean at the end of the mission.
Artemis I is just the first in a three-phase program aiming to put astronauts back on the surface of the moon for the first time since the final Apollo moon visit in December 1972.
Artemis II, currently anticipated for sometime in 2024, will head to space with a four-person crew in the Orion capsule that will fly the craft around the moon in further testing. Then, if all goes according to NASA’s current plan, the SLS/Orion package will return on a mission that will include a landing on the moon’s surface in 2025. Along the way, NASA wants to put a small space station, the Lunar Gateway, in orbit around the moon and has future plans that include a moon base station, the Artemis Base Camp.
So, why go back to the moon?
In a posting on the Artemis missions’ website, NASA lists a few reasons why it’s devoting billions of dollars to making moon landings, once again, a priority.
“We’re going back to the moon for scientific discovery, economic benefits and inspiration for a new generation of explorers: the Artemis Generation,” NASA says. “While maintaining American leadership in exploration, we will build a global alliance and explore deep space for the benefit of all.”
And while a return to the moon smacks a little of “been there, done that,” NASA says it’s committed to accomplishing some other first benchmarks as part of the series of Artemis missions, including extending manned exploration deeper into the solar system.
“With Artemis missions, NASA will land the first woman and first person of color on the moon, using innovative technologies to explore more of the lunar surface than ever before,” NASA says in a web posting. “We will collaborate with commercial and international partners and establish the first long-term presence on the moon. Then, we will use what we learn on and around the moon to take the next giant leap: sending the first astronauts to Mars.”
NASA says its SLS launch system stands at 322 feet high — taller than the Statue of Liberty — and weighs 5.75 million pounds when loaded with fuel. During launch and ascent, the SLS will produce 8.8 million pounds of maximum thrust, 15% more thrust than the Saturn V rockets that propelled Apollo astronauts to the moon.