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NASA sends SLS back to garage after failed launch attempt

SLS on the launch pad at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

SLS on the launch pad at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
A photo: NASA

A serious and unmanaged hydrogen leak prevented NASA from launching its SLS rocket on Saturday. Teams continue to investigate the cause of the second failed launch attempt, but NASA says the rocket will have to return to the vehicle assembly building to undergo safety checks.

For rocket scientists, hydrogen is an important fuel, but also a major pain in the ass. It is the smallest molecule in the universe and therefore tends to seep through tiny cracks and crevices. Hydrogen leaks have hampered the Space Shuttle program, and now the SLS rocket. heavily modeled after the Shuttle launch system – also experiencing problems with a hydrogen leak.

Latest leak, which prevented The space launch system launched today was more serious than the one experienced during first launch attempt On Monday, Mike Sarafin, head of the Artemis mission, told reporters during a press briefing earlier today. “This is an unmanaged leak,” he said, saying that pre-planned procedures to fix the problem did not work. Ground crews were able to fix the hydrogen leak on Monday, but the methods used today “they didn’t work in our favor,” Sarafin said. Three different attempts were made today to solve the problem. None worked. Today’s launch was scheduled to take place within a two-hour window that opened at 2:17 pm ET.

Jim Free, associate administrator for NASA’s Office of Exploration Systems Development Mission, said the current launch period, which ends Tuesday, September 6, is now “out of the question.” The next attempt to launch SLS may occur between October 17 and 31. “We don’t launch until we think it’s the right thing to do,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said during a briefing today. He reminded reporters that the Shuttle had been returned to the Vehicle Assembly Shop (VAB) more than 20 times.

NASA officials are currently developing a plan for further development of the rocket. Repairs can be made either while the rocket remains at Launch Pad 39B at Kennedy Space Center or inside a nearby VAB. While refueling on Saturday, the 8-inch quick coupler line appeared to have suffered from unintentional overpressure. Sarfin said that this could be the cause, if not the main cause, of the hydrogen leak. At today’s press briefing, Free said the large hydrogen leak at the quick coupler was different from the one on Monday.

The team decided to perform a “removal and replacement” of “soft goods” (i.e., non-metallic materials) in a quick shutdown. Now the team must decide whether this work will be done on site or in VAB. On-site would have been preferred, Sarafin said, as testing could be carried out under cryogenic conditions, which is not the case for VAB. The team will make a decision on this at some point next week.

Despite this, Rocket 322 feet (98 meters) high must return to VAB to meet range requirements; the current authorization is expiring and safety regulations stipulate that the SLS flight termination system must be retested inside the VAB. “This is a relatively short re-test of the abort system just to instill confidence that … the public will be safe,” Jeremy Parsons, deputy head of the ground systems research program at the Kennedy Space Center, told reporters Friday.

NASA officials said delays in launching the SLS would not affect the Artemis program as a whole. Nelson said NASA is still aiming to launch Artemis 2 (a crewed flight around the Moon) in 2024 and launch Artemis 3 (a crewed landing on the Moon’s surface) in 2025. Artemis program aims for a sustainable and permanent return to the lunar environment, as well as a springboard for possible crewed missions to Mars. For first mission of ArtemisSLS will send an uncrewed Orion spacecraft on a multi-week mission to and from the moon.

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