NASA is trying to work through a leaking fuel problem with the rocket, called the Space Launch System, or SLS. During the final launch attempt at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Saturday, September 3, the rocket sprung a major leak as it was being filled with supercooled liquid hydrogen.
And while the rocket is still on the pad, NASA is looking to troubleshoot that problem by repairing and replacing some seals before running tests to make sure all leaks are closed, NASA officials said at a news conference Thursday.
It is not yet clear how long this will take.
Then there is the issue of certification. The US Space Force, an arm of the military, still monitors all rocket launches from the US East Coast, including NASA’s launch site in Florida, and that area is known as the “Eastern Range”.
The officials on the range are responsible for ensuring that there is no risk to persons or property from any attempted launch. And that means Eastern Range must also give NASA the thumbs up that the rocket’s Flight Termination System — a system that will essentially destroy the rocket in midair if it veers off course and starts heading in a populated direction — is ready to fly.
However, that system relies on batteries that, under current regulations, must be recharged at a nearby indoor facility before the newly proposed launch dates.
NASA is hoping to get a waiver for this rule. But it is not yet clear when or if that request will be granted. If NASA doesn’t get this waiver approval, the SLS rocket will have to be rolled off the pad and back to the nearby Vehicle Assembly Building, triggering more delays.
“If they decide that’s not the right thing to do, obviously we’ll support that and stand down and look for our next launch attempt,” Jim Free, associate administrator for NASA’s Exploration Systems Development Mission Directorate, said at Thursday’s news conference.
“But we’re still going to press ahead with the refueling test,” he said, referring to the tests NASA plans to run to repair hydrogen leaks while the rocket is still on the pad.
The Space Force’s Eastern Range said only in a statement that it “will review NASA’s request.” It declined to share details on timing.
On Thursday, however, NASA provided insight into what it has discovered about the leak problem. The space agency had already revealed that there was an “accidental pressurization of the hydrogen line” which dropped it below 60 pounds per hour. square inch of pressure instead of the 20 pounds per square inch they had hoped for, Michael Sarafin, Artemis Mission Manager, said Saturday.
It’s still not clear if that overpressure is what caused the leak, but NASA knows why the overpressure occurred in the first place — and human error was involved.
“Our management team apologizes [the operator in charge of overseeing the process] because we had made some manual procedural changes between the try on Monday and the try on Saturday,” Free said. “We practiced it during the week, but they had only had a couple of chances. So we didn’t put our operators in the best place we could have as a management team and we really relied heavily on our credit team.”
That excess pressure is certainly something NASA wants to avoid, according to Free. NASA is looking for a “kinder and gentler, if you will, loading process.”
For now, there is still a waiting game and a lot of “ifs” surrounding the Artemis I launch timeline. The ultimate goal of this project is to get the SLS rocket into orbit and deploy the Orion capsule, which is built for astronauts but will fly empty for this test mission. The capsule will continue to orbit the moon before making the 239,000 mile trip home.
The Artemis I mission is just the beginning of a program that aims to return humans to the moon and eventually land manned missions on Mars. Nelson said the problems during the first two scrubs have not caused any delays for future Artemis program missions.
CNN’s Kristin Fisher and Ashley Strickland contributed to this article.