SLS fuel leak likely to delay Artemis 1 launch to October

NASA’s next-generation Space Launch System likely won’t fly in September. After a fuel leak forced the agency to do so, there was some hope that the mission could begin before its current September 6 launch window ended. That will not be the case.

“We will not launch in this launch phase,” Jim Free, NASA’s deputy administrator for exploration systems development, told a roomful of reporters after Saturday morning’s events. “This was not a manageable leak,” added Artemis Mission Manager Michael Sarafin, referring to the “Quick Disconnect” fitting that caused so much trouble for NASA yesterday. Kennedy Space Center ground crew tried three times to fix the problem before recommending a “no go” for Saturday’s launch.

According to Sarafin, the leak began after one of the fuel lines to Artemis 1’s main booster suffered a brief and “unintentional” over-pressurization. A “faulty” manual command from Mission Control triggered the incident. On Saturday, Sarafin said it was too early to know if that was the cause of the fuel leak, but there was enough flammable hydrogen gas near the rocket that it would not have been safe to launch it. “We want to draw conclusions here with caution and prudence because correlation is not the same as causation,” he added.

Whatever caused the leak, NASA must now replace the non-metallic gasket that was supposed to prevent hydrogen from escaping at the quick connector. The agency has two options on how to proceed. It could either replace the seal on Launch Pad 39B or in KSC’s Vehicle Assembly Building. Both have advantages and disadvantages.

Working on the pad would allow NASA to test the system at cryogenic temperatures. That would give the agency a better idea of ​​how the rocket will behave once it’s ready for launch again. However, NASA would need to build an enclosure around the SLS. With the VAB, on the other hand, the building would act as a housing, but only limit the tests to ambient temperatures.

In the end, the SLS will probably end up at VAB in any case, since NASA has to test the batteries in the vehicle’s flight termination system every 20 days. The system allows the Space Force to destroy the rocket if it goes off course or something else goes wrong mid-flight. NASA can only conduct these tests at the VAB, and the Space Force recently gave the agency a five-day extension to the usual deadline.

All in all, the next earliest launch window of Artemis 1 opens on September 16th and then closes on October 4th. This opening involves a possible conflict with another mission. Space X’s Crew-5 flight is scheduled to lift off from Kennedy Space Center on October 3. As such, NASA is more likely to target the follow-up window, which opens on October 17 and runs through the end of the month. We’ll know more next week when NASA holds another press conference, but NASA Administrator Bill Nelson insisted the agency would not attempt to launch Artemis 1 until it feels the SLS is ready to fly. “We don’t start until we think it’s right,” he said. “I see this as part of our space program where safety is at the top of our list.”

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