No-Go for Artemis I Today

No-Go for Artemis I Today

NASA’s launch of the Artemis I test flight around the Moon scrubbed today because of a problem chilling one of the four RS-25 engines down to operating temperatures. The next opportunity is Friday, but NASA is still determining if it will be ready to try again by then. Vice President Kamala Harris, who chairs the White House National Space Council, was at the launch and undaunted by the delay, telling reporters “a lot of good work really happened today.”

A combination of factors worked against the first launch of the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and Orion spacecraft on a 42-day uncrewed test flight.

Weather caused the first part of the delay. Launch rules require that the chance of lightning within 5 miles of the launch pad not exceed 20 percent. Nearby thunderstorms pushed that above 20 percent for about an hour.

Artemis I Space Launch System rocket and Orion spacecraft at Launch Complex-39B counting down for launch, August 29, 2022. The launch was ultimately scrubbed for technical reasons. Photo credit: NASA/Keegan Barber

NASA had a two-hour launch window, so by itself that would not necessarily scrub the launch, but several technical problems arose as well. A hydrogen leak was resolved and what might have been a crack in the intertank turned out to be a crack in the thermal protection system foam instead, but determining the causes and workarounds ate up more time.

Ultimately the final straw was the inability to thermally condition one of the Aerojet Rocketdyne engines by flowing ultra-cold liquid hydrogen through it coupled with an intertank vent valve problem that arose when they tried to increase pressure to increase the flow.

The four RS-25 engines use cyrogenic propellant, liquid oxygen (LOX) at -294°F and liquid hydrogen (LH2) at -423°F. LH2 is run through the engines prior to startup to chill them down through a “bleed” system to avoid shock when the ultra-cold fluid meets the engine parts.

The bleed was successful on three of the four engines, but not engine number 3.

SLS uses RS-25 engines left over from the space shuttle program. All on this vehicle have flown to space before. Engine 3, number 2058, put six space shuttles into orbit between 2006 and 2011.

At a post-scrub briefing, Artemis mission manager Mike Sarafin said that while they are still determining what went wrong, it appears to be unrelated to the engines themselves. Instead, it could be the cooling system. In fact, the other three engines also did not reach expected temperatures, although they were within acceptable limits.

During the troubleshooting, engineers increased pressure to try and force the LH2 through, but that created another unexpected problem, a leak in an intertank vent valve.

The combination of the chill-down problems and the uncooperative valve led mission managers to scrub the launch, Sarafin said. They need more time to understand what happened.

The Mission Management Team will meet tomorrow to look at everything and decide how to proceed. Sarafin said launching on Friday is “definitely” a possibility, but it’s clear that’s exactly what it is, a possibility not a certainty.

Artemis I can only launch at certain times when the Earth and Moon are properly aligned to allow the mission to meet test criteria such as splashing down in daylight. A host of other factors also play into the schedule. Friday, September 2, at 12:48 pm ET is the next opportunity and Monday, September 5 after that, although NASA has said in recent days that September 3 and 4 are also possibilities depending on whether they have filled the tanks with propellant by a certain time.

The bottom line is that they do not know right now when they will make the next attempt. More information will be available during a media telecon tomorrow at 6:00 pm ET.

In the meantime, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson points out that SLS/Orion is a “complicated system” and “don’t light the candle till it’s ready to go.”

Today’s long-awaited launch attempt took place with great fanfare with a long list of VIPs from the Executive Branch and Congress, as well as partner countries in the Artemis program.

Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), chairwoman of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, and Alondra Nelson, Acting Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, were among the guests (L-R: Alondra Nelson, Eddie Bernice Johnson, Bill Nelson).

Vice President Harris and her husband Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff also were there. They arrived at Kennedy Space Center early this morning and after the scrub toured Artemis II and Artemis III hardware at KSC and met with ESA Director General Josef Aschbacher. ESA provides the Service Module for Orion.

As chair of the National Space Council, Harris is in charge of Executive Branch space policy across all space sectors, a critical position for NASA interests. Nelson said she is “bullish” on the space program and especially the Artemis Moon to Mars program despite the scrub.

Indeed, in remarks to reporters as she departed KSC, she said today was “an important day,” expressed thanks to NASA and its private sector and international partners, and embraced the Artemis program overall.

“I will say that today was a very important day. And while a lot of folks might be disappointed that the launch did not actually happen, a lot of good work really happened today. I take great pride, I think we as Americans take great pride in America’s space program historically and today.  We have and we continue to be a leader. …

“Innovation requires this kind of moment where you test out something that’s never been done and then you regroup and you figure out what the next step will be to get to the ultimate goal, which for us is going to the Moon and showing how humans can live and work on the Moon. And again, with the next step being to go to Mars.”

SLS is often criticized for being years late and billions over budget. NASA’s Inspector General estimates this launch and each of the next three will cost about $4 billion each.

Asked if she’s worried about the pricetag, her answer was that the return on investment will be well worth it.

“Listen, I think that we have to always look at the return on any investment we make.   And the return on an investment for space exploration and being able to put human beings on the Moon where they can work and live — it’s going to be immense.

“Everything from what we are going to learn about what we need to do around rejuvenation of — of essential needs, in terms of essential resources; what is going to happen in terms of the scientific research; what is going to happen in terms of that extension of the work that we have been doing around a public-private partnership to invest in further innovation.  It’s immense.

“The last time we put people on the Moon, there was so much that came out of that that was intended and some unintended — in terms of the benefits that it allows for science and medical research — and the same thing is going to happen here.”

Note: this article was updated throughout following the press conference and the release of the White House transcript of Harris’s remarks.

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