NASA scrubs second try to launch moon rocket due to persistent hydrogen leak

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An overhead view shows the Orion spacecraft atop the Space Launch System rocket. (NASA via YouTube)

NASA called off today’s attempt to launch its Space Launch System rocket due to a hydrogen leak encountered during the process of fueling up the core stage.

Mission managers said they’d have to pass up the current opportunity for liftoff, and although a firm decision hasn’t yet been made, it seems likely that the next launch attempt will have to wait until October.

NASA’s uncrewed test mission, known as Artemis 1, is meant to blaze a trail for sending astronauts to the moon.

“We’ll go when it’s ready,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said. “We don’t go until then, and especially now, on a test flight, because we’re going to stress this and test it … and make sure it’s right before we put four humans up on the top of it. So, this is part of the space business.”

Today’s scrub at Kennedy Space Center in Florida came five days after an initial postponement, which was attributed to concerns about the procedure for cooling down the SLS’s rocket engines prior to launch. Engineers suspected the problem was due to a bad sensor, and changed their procedures to deal with that scenario. However, today’s countdown didn’t get far enough to use those procedures.

This time around, the issue had to do with the fuel line that NASA uses to fill up the SLS’s tank with super-cooled liquid hydrogen propellant. Engineers detected a persistent leak in the connection between the fuel line and the rocket, and tried three times to reseat a seal in the connection.

“Unfortunately, attempts to troubleshoot it did not succeed,” NASA launch commentator Derrol Nail said.

The rocket’s liquid oxygen tank was fully filled, but Nail said the liquid hydrogen tank was only 11% filled when the countdown was called off at 11:17 a.m. ET (8:17 a.m. PT) — exactly three hours before the scheduled launch time.

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During a post-scrub news briefing, Artemis mission manager Mike Sarafin said a valve was mistakenly opened in advance of today’s propellant loading process — which resulted in hydrogen pressure rising beyond the standard limit of 20 pounds per square inch to as high as 60 psi. He cautioned, however, that mission managers have not yet linked that inadvertent overpressure to the hydrogen leak.

Sarafin said the leak resulted in a concentration of hydrogen in ambient air that was two to three times higher than the 4% that NASA considers a safe level. “This was not a manageable leak,” he said.

Mission managers are continuing to assess their next steps. Sarafin said it will probably take “several weeks” to fix the leak. The rocket may have to be rolled back from the launch pad to NASA’s Vehicle Assembly Building for further work. In any case, it will take until late September or, more likely, October to do what’s needed.

Whenever it happens, the first-ever blastoff of the SLS rocket — which outranks the Apollo era’s Saturn V as the most powerful launch vehicle ever built for NASA — should be a spectacular sight. And that would be just the beginning for the Artemis 1 mission, marking the first time in nearly 50 years that a spacecraft designed to carry humans has gone as far as the moon.

The mission plan for Artemis 1 calls for the SLS to send an Orion spacecraft on a looping trip that would come as close as 60 miles to the lunar surface, and range as far out as 40,000 miles beyond the moon.

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Orion wouldn’t be carrying any people for Artemis 1. Instead, three mannequins outfitted with sensors would gather data about radiation exposure and other environmental conditions inside the capsule.

In collaboration with Cisco and Lockheed Martin, Amazon has built an Alexa-type virtual assistant nicknamed Callisto that’s due to ride in Orion as an experiment. On future flights, Callisto could provide real-time information for astronauts heading to the moon or Mars.

One of the key moments of the Artemis 1 mission would come when the Orion spacecraft hits the atmosphere at 25,000 mph on its way back to a Pacific Ocean splashdown. That would put Orion’s heat shield to its sternest test, at temperatures ranging as high as 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

If this test flight goes well, that would clear the way for NASA to send a crew of astronauts on a similar round-the-moon flight for Artemis 2 in the 2024 time frame. The milestone lunar landing would come on Artemis 3 in 2025 or 2026.

The Artemis moon program, which takes its name from the mythological moon goddess who was Apollo’s sister, highlights NASA’s leading role in beyond-Earth exploration. That role has been somewhat controversial in recent years, due to the years of delay and the billions of dollars in cost overruns associated with the SLS-Orion program.

A successful mission would arguably raise the space agency’s profile in comparison with commercial space ventures such as SpaceX and Blue Origin, while a not-so-successful mission could intensify the debate over whether NASA should hand over more of its role to those commercial ventures. (SpaceX is already due to provide a lunar lander for the Artemis 3 mission, based on the design of its Starship rocket.)

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“Both Blue Origin and SpaceX have been building heavy-lift reusable rockets at their own expense and are already nipping at the heels of the government’s throwaway rocket that receives billions of our tax dollars,” former NASA associate administrator Lori Garver wrote in her recently published memoir, “Escaping Gravity.”

This is an updated version of a report that was first published on Sept. 2.

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