Kennedy Space Center’s countdown clocks have started ticking again as NASA executives expressed confidence in their plan to launch the 322-foot rocket this weekend.
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — NASA was targeting a launch of its New Moon rocket Saturday after fixing fuel leaks and bypassing a bad engine sensor that thwarted the first attempt.
The inaugural flight of the 322-foot rocket – the most powerful ever built by NASA – was postponed late in Monday’s countdown. Kennedy Space Center’s clocks started ticking again as managers expressed confidence in their plan and forecasters gave favorable weather odds.
The rocket carries a crew capsule with three test dummies that will fly around the moon and back over the course of six weeks – NASA’s first such attempt since the Apollo program 50 years ago. NASA wants to wring out the spacecraft before strapping in astronauts for the next scheduled flight in two years.
NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said he’s more confident about this second launch attempt given what engineers learned from the first attempt.
The same applies to astronaut Jessica Meir, who is on NASA’s shortlist for one of the first moon crews.
“We’re all looking forward to getting started, but the important thing is that we go when we’re ready and get it right because the next few missions will have people on board. Maybe me, maybe my friends,” Meir told The Associated Press on Friday.
Engineers in charge of the Space Launch System rocket Thursday night insisted all four of the rocket’s main engines were fine and that a faulty temperature sensor meant one of them looked like it was too warm on Monday. The engines must be able to withstand the minus 420 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 250 degrees Celsius) of liquid hydrogen fuel at takeoff, otherwise they could be damaged and shut down mid-flight.
“We have verified, without a shadow of a doubt, that good quality liquid hydrogen is flowing through the engines,” said John Honeycutt, the rocket’s program manager.
Once refueling begins on Saturday morning, the start team will conduct another engine test – this time earlier in the countdown. Even if that suspicious sensor indicates that one engine is overheating, other sensors can be relied on to make sure everything is working properly and to pause the countdown if there’s a problem, Honeycutt told reporters.
NASA was unable to conduct this type of engine test during dress rehearsals earlier this year because of a fuel leak. More fuel leaks surfaced on Monday; The technicians found some loose connections and tightened them up.
The engine temperature situation contributes to the risk of the flight, as does another issue that surfaced Monday: cracks in the rocket’s foam insulation. If pieces of foam break off during take-off, they could hit and damage the seat belt boosters. Engineers consider the likelihood of this to be low and have accepted these small additional risks.
“This is an extremely complicated machine and system. Millions of parts,” NASA chief Nelson told the AP. “There are indeed risks. But are these risks acceptable? I leave that to the experts. My role is to remind them that you don’t take risks that aren’t an acceptable risk.”
The $4.1 billion test flight is NASA’s first step toward sending astronauts around the moon in 2024 and landing on the surface in 2025. Astronauts last stepped on the moon in 1972.
The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.
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