NASA is still going back to the moon, but not for a little while longer. The agency postponed the already-postponed launch of its massive new moon rocket on Saturday morning, this time due to a big leak in a hydrogen fuel line that engineers at Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, were unable to fix. They might not try another launch until late September or sometime in October. In the meantime, NASA’s new Space Launch System rocket (SLS) — the tallest and most powerful rocket in the world — will be wheeled back to the garage for more tests.
On Monday morning, NASA scrubbed the first planned launch of SLS with 40 minutes left on the countdown clock after engineers discovered an engine-cooling issue (as well as an earlier hydrogen fuel-line leak). Those problems were apparently resolved enough by Thursday to reschedule the launch for a two-hour window beginning 2:17 p.m. Saturday. But when loading SLS with propellant on Saturday morning, engineers discovered the leaking fuel line, and NASA eventually scrubbed the launch with three hours left in the countdown.
NASA officials later said that they would not attempt to use the additional backup-launch windows on Monday and Tuesday, but would return SLS to to the giant hanger at JSC. They said they didn’t yet know when they would try again. If they can work out the kinks in time, there’s another two-week lunar launch period opening on September 19, followed by another two-week period on October 17.
The now again-postponed Artemis I mission will mark the inaugural flights of SLS and the new Orion spacecraft, which will be sent, sans a crew, into lunar orbit and back again. The mission is a test run for future crewed missions to the moon, including Artemis III, which will land two astronauts on the lunar surface for the first time since Apollo 17 in 1972. That mission is still pencilled in for 2025, but we’ll see.
As officials like NASA administrator (and former U.S. senator) Bill Nelson have been repeatedly emphasizing, postponed launches (including scrubs due to liquid hydrogen leaks, or suddenly inclement weather) have always been a staple of the U.S. space program.
Hopefully most of the 400,000 people who had been estimated to gather on Florida’s Space Coast on Saturday to witness the launch knew the odds of everything going according to plan, particularly with a big new rocket, weren’t very high.