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NASA aims for Artemis I launch before month ends, but needs Space Force OK

With Artemis I temporarily grounded at launch pad 39-B, news photographers remove remote cameras. (Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel/TNS)

NASA has asked the U.S. Space Force if it would allow for two opportunities later this month to try again to launch the Artemis I mission to the moon, but to do so NASA would also need to sign off on fixes in the works to the $4.1 billion rocket on the launch pad at Kennedy Space Center.

The mission profile for a Friday, Sept. 23 attempt has an 80-minute launch window that opens at 6:47 a.m. that would send the Orion capsule on a 26-day mission to orbit the moon several times and splash down in the Pacific Ocean on Oct. 18. A Tuesday, Sept. 27 opportunity has a 70-minute launch window that opens at 11:37 a.m. for a 40-day mission that would land on Nov. 5.

After two scrubs, NASA is in the midst of fixing cryogenic fuel lines from the mobile launcher into the Space Launch System rocket. A leak in one line that was expelling liquid hydrogen during an attempt last Saturday forced NASA to stand down again after other issues scrubbed the first attempt on Aug. 29.

The rocket, specifically the batteries of its flight termination system, currently faces a 25-day limit from the Eastern Range, which is run by the Space Force’s Space Launch Delta 45 and responsible for protecting the region from the danger inherent in rocket launches.

The batteries of that system, which is its self-destruct mechanism in the case of an emergency, cannot be checked on the launch pad. The SLS would have to be rolled back to the Vehicle Assembly Building to accomplish that.

The 5.75 million-pound, 322-foot-tall combination of the SLS, mobile launcher and Orion spacecraft last rolled to Launch Pad 39-B back on Aug. 16.

A waiver by the Eastern Range would allow Artemis I to remain at the launch pad through the proposed launch opportunities.

The Artemis I mission has only limited windows each month to make the flight because of the position of the Earth and moon. The last window closed on Sept. 6 and the next opens on Sept. 19 and runs through Oct. 4.

“We’ll continue to work with our great partner in the range as they evaluate the realism and feasibility of our waiver request,” said NASA’s Jim Free, associate administrator for the Exploration Systems Development Mission Directorate during a Thursday press conference. “And certainly if they decide that it’s not the right thing to do, we obviously will support that and stand down and look for our next launch attempt.”

The Eastern Range, though, may not give the waiver, which would force Artemis I to roll back, and then look to future launch opportunities.

That could mean waiting until windows that run Oct. 17-31, Nov. 12-27 and Dec. 9-23.

Free also wanted to make clear that SLD 45 and its commanding officer Brigadier Gen. Stephen Purdy have been a great partner.

“Gen. Purdy and his team have just been fantastic at listening to where we want to go and giving us their thoughts, and us making sure we understand their requirements and concerns,” Free said. “That is their range, and it’s our job to comply with their requirements. So we will do that.”

No matter the decision from the Eastern Range, NASA must sign off on its fixes in the works now.

NASA announced Tuesday it planned on replacing a seal on the main culprit line at the connector, called the quick disconnect. Cryogenic liquid hydrogen leaks plagued wet dress rehearsals in April and June as well as the first launch attempt.

Once fixed, it will perform a tanking test at the pad, which has the benefit of using cryogenic fuel, something it cannot do at the VAB. The tanking test is targeting Sept. 17.

Mike Bolger, Exploration Ground Systems program manager at KSC, said the fuel loading gremlins that have forced the scrubs have informed how they will proceed on future tanking attempts.

“We’re calling it a kinder and gentler approach to tanking,” he said. “We think that may help reduce the stress of pulses or sudden changes on the seals. So the big picture by replacing the seals and going through this cryo event, and making the tanking process as benign as possible, we’re optimistic that we can knock this problem flat and have a successful tanking.”

For launch, the core stage has to be filled with 537,000 gallons of liquid hydrogen and 196,000 gallons of liquid oxygen to help fuel the four RS-25 engines at the base of the core stage that along with two solid rocket boosters will give SLS 8.8 million pounds of thrust on liftoff.

When it launches, it will be the most powerful rocket to have ever lifted off from Earth.

“The team is making great progress. Morale is good, still excited for this opportunity that we’ve got,” Bolger said. “As always, we’ll launch when we’re ready. We’ve talked with our team last week, it wasn’t our week but we know our day is coming, and we’re excited about it.”


© 2022 Orlando Sentinel

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