A NASA team prepares to roll a 322-foot-tall (98-meter) Artemis I rocket module, including the Space Launch System and Orion spacecraft, back to the Vehicle Assembly Building at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on April 26.
The crucial test, known as a wet dress rehearsal, simulates each stage of the launch without the rocket leaving the launch pad. This process includes loading fuel, a complete countdown simulating launch, resetting the countdown clock, and emptying the rocket’s tanks.
Engineers encountered a hydrogen leak during the third attempt at this test on April 14th.
Rolling the rocket stack back indoors will allow them to evaluate a leak found on the rocket’s tail maintenance mast umbilical and replace the faulty upper stage helium check valve that also created the problem.
According to the agency, “updates are required from the external supplier of the nitrogen gas used for testing,” which leaves room for some corrections before the giant rocket returns to the launch pad for further testing.
Preparing an entirely new rocket and spacecraft for launch is “a really challenging task,” Tom Whitmyer, deputy assistant administrator for general research systems development at NASA headquarters, said during a news conference on Monday.
“We are putting the pieces of the puzzle together,” he said. “I think we came up with a few more pieces on Thursday, but we have a few more pieces ahead of us.”
The team is currently evaluating what the next steps will be after making fixes to the rocket, but Whitmyer assured that “we’ll be sure to come back and do a dress rehearsal” to demonstrate loading the super-cold propellant and passing the launch countdown. “The only question is when and how to do it right.”
The team has several options once the rocket is back in the building. Engineers can do a quick fix, which is to take care of the bare minimum of things immediately, and then see how soon they can make another attempt at a wet suit rehearsal test.
Another option is to spend more time working on the rocket while it’s in the building and bring it closer to being deployed in the configurations that are actually needed to fly.
The third option involves a dress rehearsal and launch in the same campaign after deployment to the launch pad, Charlie Blackwell-Thompson, Artemis launch director for NASA’s Exploration Ground Systems program, said during a press conference.
“Our team has been working really hard and I think they are doing a great job with all of these initial operations and I am consistently impressed and proud of the problem solving skills I see on the team. ,” she said.
This latest decision “challenges” the earliest launch window, originally slated for June 6-16, but later launch windows of June 29-July 12 and July 26-Aug 9 remain possible.
“We’ve had to overcome a number of challenges, and those challenges require perseverance,” Mike Sarafin, Artemis mission leader at NASA Headquarters, said during the conference. “And that perseverance, in turn, builds the character on the team and the character needed to be optimistic when we’re about to be ready to fly.”
The purpose of a wet dress rehearsal is to learn about problems that can be fixed before they are forced to abort a launch attempt, Blackwell-Thompson said, and this has also been experienced by the Apollo and Shuttle programs.
The results of the wet dress rehearsal will determine when the uncrewed Artemis I will embark on a mission that will leave the Moon and return to Earth. This mission will kick-start NASA’s Artemis program, which is expected to return humans to the Moon and land the first woman and first person of color on the lunar surface by 2025.