NASA says it will try again on Saturday to launch its Artemis 1 test flight — a critical mission to send an unpiloted Orion crew capsule on a 42-day mission beyond the moon and back.
Launch was initially scheduled for Monday morning, but after months of tests, troubleshooting and repairs, NASA ran into problems during fueling of the Space Launch System moon rocket, forcing the agency to scrub the planned launch just as the two-hour window was opening.
NASA engineers were working to resolve the issues that arose Monday, including a hydrogen leak discovered as the fueling was taking place. Another issue as the countdown ticked into its final hours was troubleshooting to find the cause of a momentary communications glitch in one of the channels relaying commands and telemetry to and from the Orion spacecraft. Yet another potential problem was a possible indicator of a leak of some sort, a crack in thermal insulation or some other issue spotted on the exterior of the rocket’s core stage.
The launch, when it happens, will be an impressive sight. The SLS, NASA’s most powerful rocket ever, has four shuttle-era engines and two extended strap-on solid fuel boosters that will generate a ground-shaking 8.8 million pounds of thrust to propel the 5.7-million pound rocket away from pad 39B at the Kennedy Space Center.
The rocket’s portion of the Artemis 1 mission will last just an hour and 36 minutes, boosting the Orion capsule and its European Space Agency-supplied Orion service module into space, out of Earth orbit and onto a trajectory toward the moon.
After a close flyby at an altitude of just 60 miles, Orion will whip back out into a distant orbit around the moon for two weeks of tests and checkout.
If all goes well, the capsule will fall back toward the moon for another close flyby that will set up a high-speed descent back to Earth, with a Pacific Ocean splashdown.
NASA plans to follow the Artemis 1 mission by launching four astronauts on a looping around-the-moon flight in 2024, setting the stage for the first astronaut landing in nearly 50 years, near the south pole. The first woman and the next man could step onto the lunar surface in the 2025-26 timeframe.
It’s believed there may be ice deposits in lunar craters near the pole, and future astronauts may be able to “mine” that ice if it’s present and accessible, converting it into air, water and even rocket fuel to vastly reduce the cost of deep space exploration.
More generally, Artemis astronauts will carry out extended exploration and research to learn more about the moon’s origin and evolution and test the hardware and procedures that will be necessary before sending astronauts to Mars.
But first, NASA must prove the rocket and capsule will work as planned — and that begins with the Artemis 1 launch.
The goal of the Artemis 1 mission is to put the Orion spacecraft through its paces, testing its solar power, propulsion, navigation and life support systems before a return to Earth October 10 and a 25,000-mph plunge back into the atmosphere that will subject its protective heat shield to a hellish 5,000 degrees.
Testing the heat shield and confirming it can protect astronauts returning from deep space is the No. 1 priority of the Artemis 1 mission.