CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida (AP) — NASA targeted the launch of its new lunar rocket Saturday, after fixing a fuel leak and working around a bad engine sensor that thwarted the first attempt.
The inaugural flight of the 322-foot (98-meter) rocket — the most powerful rocket NASA has ever built — was delayed late in the countdown on Monday. Kennedy Space Center clocks began to appear again as managers expressed confidence in their plan and forecasters provided favorable weather odds.
Above the rocket is a crew capsule with three experimental dolls that will fly around the moon and return over the course of six weeks — the first such attempt by NASA since the Apollo program 50 years ago. NASA wants to get rid of the spacecraft before connecting the astronauts to the next flight planned in two years.
NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said he’s more confident going into this second launch attempt, given all the engineers learned from the first attempt.
So is astronaut Jessica Meir, who is on NASA’s shortlist for one of the initial lunar crews.
“We’re all excited about this, but the most important thing is to go when we’re ready and do it right, because the next missions will have humans on board. Maybe me, maybe my friends,” Meir told The Associated Press on Friday.
Engineers in charge of the Space Launch System rocket insisted Thursday night that the rocket’s four main engines were fine and that a faulty temperature sensor caused one of them to appear as if it was too warm on Monday. Engines must match -420 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 250 degrees Celsius) to liquid hydrogen fuel at takeoff, or else they may become damaged and shut down during flight.
“We’ve convinced ourselves without a doubt that we have high-quality liquid hydrogen running through the engines,” said John Honeycutt, rocket program manager.
Once refueling begins on Saturday morning, the launch team will perform another engine test — this time early in the countdown. Honeycutt told reporters that even if this suspected sensor indicated that one engine was too warm, other sensors could be relied upon to ensure everything was working properly and to stop the countdown if there was a problem.
NASA was unable to perform this type of engine test during drills earlier this year due to a fuel leak. More fuel leaked on Monday. Technicians found some loose connections and tightened them.
The engine’s temperature setting adds to the flight hazards, as does another problem that surfaced on Monday: cracks in the rocket’s foam insulator. If any pieces of foam break off when taking off, they can bump into the reinforced belt and damage it. The engineers consider the possibility of this to be low and have accepted this slight additional risk.
“This is a very complex machine and system. Millions of parts,” NASA chief Nelson told The Associated Press. There are, in fact, risks. But are these risks acceptable? I leave that to the experts. My role is to remind them that you are not taking any unacceptable opportunities.
The $4.1 billion test flight is NASA’s first step in sending astronauts around the moon in 2024 and landing them on the surface in 2025. The last time astronauts walked on the moon was in 1972.
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