By Joey Roulette and Steve Gorman
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (Reuters) – Ground crews at Kennedy Space Center prepared for a second test launch of NASA’s massive next-generation moon rocket on Saturday on its maiden flight, hoping to having resolved the engineering issues that thwarted the initial countdown five days earlier.
The 32-story Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and its Orion capsule were scheduled to lift off from Cape Canaveral, Florida at 2:17 p.m. EDT (1817 GMT), kicking off the ambitious Mars moon program from NASA’s Artemis program 50 years after the last Apollo lunar mission. (Graphic: https://tmsnrt.rs/3PPRsbN)
The previous Monday launch bid ended with technical issues forcing the countdown to stop and the uncrewed flight postponed.
Tests indicated that technicians have since repaired a leaking fuel line that contributed to Monday’s canceled launch, Jeremy Parsons, deputy program director at the space center, told reporters on Friday.
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Two other key issues on the rocket itself — a faulty engine temperature sensor and some cracks in the foam insulation — have been resolved to NASA’s satisfaction, Artemis Mission Manager Mike Sarafin told reporters Thursday. evening.
Weather is always an additional factor beyond NASA’s control. The latest forecast called for a 70% chance of favorable conditions during Saturday’s two-hour launch window, according to the US Space Force at Cape Canaveral.
If the countdown was interrupted again, NASA could reschedule another launch attempt for Monday or Tuesday.
Dubbed Artemis I, the mission marks the first flight of the SLS rocket and the Orion capsule, built respectively under NASA contracts with Boeing Co and Lockheed Martin Corp.
It also signals a major shift in direction for NASA’s post-Apollo human spaceflight program, after decades focused on low Earth orbit with space shuttles and the International Space Station.
Named after the goddess who was Apollo’s twin sister in ancient Greek mythology, Artemis aims to bring astronauts back to the surface of the moon as soon as 2025.
Twelve astronauts walked on the moon during six Apollo missions from 1969 to 1972, the only spaceflights to still place humans on the lunar surface. But Apollo, born out of the US-Soviet space race during the Cold War, was less science-driven than Artemis.
The new moon program has enlisted commercial partners such as SpaceX and space agencies from Europe, Canada and Japan to eventually establish a long-term lunar operating base as a springboard to even more ambitious human journeys to Mars. .
Getting the SLS-Orion spacecraft off the ground is a key first step. Its maiden voyage is meant to put the 5.75 million pound vehicle through its paces in a rigorous test flight pushing its design limits and hopefully proving the spacecraft is fit to fly astronauts.
If the mission is successful, a crewed flight of Artemis II around the moon could take place as soon as 2024, followed in a few years by the first lunar landing of the program of astronauts, including a woman, with Artemis III.
Considered the most powerful and complex rocket in the world, the SLS represents the largest new vertical launch system the US space agency has built since the Apollo-era Saturn V.
Barring last-minute difficulties, Saturday’s countdown is set to end with the rocket’s four main R-25 engines and two solid rocket boosters firing to produce 8.8 million pounds of thrust, that’s about 15% more thrust than the Saturn V, sending the spacecraft hurtling skyward.
About 90 minutes after launch, the rocket’s upper stage will propel Orion out of Earth orbit on course for a 37-day flight that will take it within 60 miles of the lunar surface before traveling 40,000 miles (64,374 km) beyond the moon and back to Earth. The capsule is scheduled to land in the Pacific on October 11.
Although no humans are on board, Orion will carry a simulated crew of three – one male and two female mannequins – equipped with sensors to measure radiation levels and other stresses that real astronauts would experience.
One of the main objectives of the mission is to test the durability of Orion’s heat shield during its re-entry as it slams into Earth’s atmosphere at 24,500 miles (39,429 km) per hour, or 32 times the speed of sound, on its return from lunar orbit – much faster than the more common reentries of capsules returning from Earth orbit.
The heat shield is designed to resist re-entry friction that is expected to raise temperatures outside the capsule to nearly 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit (2,760 Celsius).
Over a decade of development with years of delays and budget overruns, the SLS-Orion spacecraft has so far cost NASA at least $37 billion, including design, construction, testing and ground facilities. NASA’s Office of Inspector General has projected total Artemis costs to reach $93 billion by 2025.
NASA champions the program as a boon to space exploration that has generated tens of thousands of jobs and billions of dollars in trade.
(Reporting by Joey Roulette in Cape Canaveral, Florida and Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)
Copyright 2022 Thomson Reuters.