MERRIT ISLAND, Fla. — Managers overseeing NASA’s Artemis I mission to the moon have requested new windows for future launch attempts, while teams work on hardware at Kennedy Space Center, agency officials said Thursday.
If two issues can be resolved in time, NASA hopes to launch the 322-foot Space Launch System rocket from pad 39B no earlier than Friday, Sept. 23. That window would remain open for two hours. If teams need more time, a 70-minute opportunity is available Tuesday, Sept. 27.
Making either of those two dates work depends on several factors.
First, teams must fix and test liquid hydrogen leak issues at pad 39B. During the last attempt at launching SLS and its uncrewed Orion capsule last week, officials noticed a significant hydrogen leak and were not able to get the tank beyond 11% filled, forcing a scrub.
At pad 39B, engineers have constructed a protective tent around the lower portions of the SLS rocket in an attempt to fix the leak narrowed down to a hydrogen quick-disconnect. Officials on Thursday said engineers will remove and further inspect the main seal in that system, which was found to have a small “notch” or tear.
NASA will conduct a fueling test on Sept. 17; if that goes well, teams will set up for a Sept. 23 launch attempt. SLS uses supercooled liquid hydrogen and oxygen for its propellants.
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Liquid hydrogen is a powerful rocket fuel, but can be challenging to work with. The SLS rocket’s RS-25 main engines are leftovers from the space shuttle era, during which the agency also dealt with fueling issues. Several factors are at play, especially when it comes to running supercooled hydrogen through lines exposed to the warm Florida environment.
“There’s no question that hydrogen is a challenging molecule, but it’s worth it,” John Blevins, SLS chief engineer, said during a Thursday briefing with reporters. “Hydrogen is the highest-performance molecule… this mission begs the use of hydrogen.”
Pushing forward with either of those launch windows depends on the second hardware issue: Re-certifying the flight termination system, or FTS, that is designed to deliberately destroy the SLS rocket in the event of an emergency.
The batteries responsible for the FTS, NASA said, must be tested every 20 to 25 days – work that can only be done in the Vehicle Assembly Building. Because the latest battery inspection expiry date already passed this week, officials said they are exploring options with the Space Force.
The military branch, which oversees Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in an area known as the Eastern Range, is ultimately responsible for public safety. Officials said they submitted FTS extension requests with the range and are waiting for a response.
So even if teams fix the hydrogen leak issue at pad 39B, they might still need to roll the rocket back to its home in the VAB if the Space Force can’t grant an extension. That process, which takes at least four days on either end plus time in the VAB itself, would add several weeks to the timeline and likely push launch to no earlier than the second half of October.
The Orion capsule secured atop SLS is responsible for an autonomous mission to the moon and back, potentially paving the way for astronauts to do the same on Artemis II no earlier than 2024. If it launches Sept. 23, that would mean a 25-day mission; a Sept. 27 liftoff, meanwhile, translates to a mission duration of 39 days.
If everything goes well with Artemis II, two yet-to-be-named astronauts will touch down on the lunar surface for Artemis III. That’s expected sometime between 2025 and 2030.
For the latest, visit floridatoday.com/launchschedule.
New Launch Windows for Artemis I
Friday, September 23:
- Launch time: 6:47 a.m. EDT
- Launch window: 120 minutes
- Orion splashdown: Oct. 18
Tuesday, September 27:
- Launch time: 11:37 a.m. EDT
- Launch window: 70 minutes
- Orion splashdown: Nov. 5
Visit floridatoday.com/space three hours before each window opening for live video and real-time updates.