to the moon

Long-Delayed Moonshot Delayed Yet Again

Photo: Gregg Newton/AFP via Getty Image

America’s long-awaited return to the moon will have to wait a little longer. With T-minus 40 minutes on the countdown clock Monday morning, NASA postponed the first launch of its massive new moon rocket, the Space Launch System, which was to be the debut mission of the Artemis lunar program.

During the final countdown, a liquid-hydrogen line failed to sufficiently cool one of the rocket’s engines and engineers were unable to troubleshoot and solve the problem in time to make the morning’s two-hour launch window. It was the second technical problem that cropped up Monday; earlier, NASA detected and fixed a leak in a fuel line attached to the bottom of the rocket.

Assuming NASA can solve the problem, the next launch window will begin at 12:48 p.m. on Friday, followed by a final opportunity next Monday. If NASA misses both windows, it will need to return the rocket system to the Kennedy Space Center’s massive garage for maintenance before attempting another launch, which won’t be possible until next month.

The Artemis I mission will send an uncrewed Orion spacecraft on a monthlong journey around the moon, a critical real-world (and real-space) test for the system before NASA can return astronauts to the surface of the moon for the first time in decades. The kind of launch-day hiccup encountered Monday is hardly novel for NASA or any other space agency. But it counted as another frustrating delay for the Artemis program, which is already years behind schedule and billions of dollars over budget.

Provisions for the Artemis program were made law by President Obama in 2010, with the launch originally expected in 2016. But while the SLS is a new launch system, it uses engines left over from the space-shuttle program NASA ended in 2011 — and figuring out how to make everything work has not gone well. As Ars Technica’s Eric Berger recently explained:

NASA’s SLS rocket program has been a hot mess almost from the beginning. It has been efficient at precisely one thing, spreading jobs around to large aerospace contractors in the states of key congressional committee leaders. Because of this, lawmakers have overlooked years of delays, a more than doubling in development costs to above $20 billion, and the availability of far cheaper and reusable rockets built by the private sector.

So here we are, nearly a dozen years after that authorization act was signed, and NASA is finally ready to launch the SLS rocket. It took the agency 11 years to go from nothing to the Moon. It has taken 12 years to go from having all the building blocks for a rocket to having it on the launch pad, ready for an uncrewed test flight.

But Berger also argues that he has come to see the SLS program as an important and necessary transition period which, regardless of its problems, has enabled NASA to get back into space exploration.

In the meantime, despite inspiring new endeavors like the James Webb Space Telescope (which took nearly two decades to get off the ground amid its own delays and budget issues, and was sent into space using a French launch system), the U.S. space program remains as frustrating as it is exciting.

This post has been updated.

Long-Delayed Moonshot Delayed Yet Again