The launch of NASA’s new lunar rocket was canceled at the last minute for the second time in a week on Saturday, delaying the start of the Artemis program to return Americans to the moon.
The launch was initially scheduled for 2:17 p.m. local time (18:17 GMT), with a two-hour firing window.
But after more than three hours of trying to solve a fuel leak during the filling of the tanks, the operation was suspended.
Launch Director Charlie Blackwell-Thompson made the final decision to cancel the liftoff from the Kennedy Space Center, Florida, a NASA commentator said in a video broadcast.
A new attempt could take place on Monday or Tuesday, but the US space agency must previously analyze all the parameters of the operation. Then the closest date would be September 19, due to the position of the Earth and the Moon.
Fifty years after the last Apollo mission, this first test mission, with no crew on board, is the first stage of the Artemis program, which aims to establish a lasting human presence on the Moon and then allow it to be used as a stepping stone to Mars. .
The orange and white SLS rocket, which was to come out, has been in development for more than a decade with the aim of becoming the most powerful in the world.
Shortly before 06:00 local time, Charlie Blackwell-Thompson had given the go-ahead to start filling the rocket’s tanks with its cryogenic fuel: in total, about three million liters of ultracold liquid hydrogen and oxygen.
However, around 07:15 a leak was detected at the foot of the rocket, in the pipe through which the hydrogen flows to the tank. The flow stopped while the teams tried, on three consecutive occasions, to solve the problem, “without being able to do so”, according to NASA’s tweet.
On Monday, a first attempt was also canceled at the last minute due to technical problems, first with an exhaust similar to the one on Saturday, which was overtaken, and then with the cooling of the engines.
– Six weeks in space –
In the middle of the long weekend in the United States, some 400,000 people were expected to attend the launch of the rocket, mainly from the surrounding beaches. Numerous astronauts had moved to the site.
Artemis 1 should make it possible to verify that the Orion capsule, located on top of the rocket, has the necessary safety conditions to transport astronauts in the future.
Thanks to this new spacecraft, NASA hopes to relaunch distant human exploration. The Moon is a thousand times further away than the International Space Station.
The total trip is expected to last about six weeks.
Orion will venture up to 40,000 miles behind the Moon, farther than any other habitable spacecraft to date.
The main objective of the Artemis 1 mission is to test the capsule’s heat shield, the largest ever built.
On its return to the Earth’s atmosphere, it will have to withstand a speed of 40,000 km/h and a temperature equivalent to half that recorded on the surface of the sun.
The ship should travel about 2.1 million kilometers before falling into the Pacific Ocean.
– Moon landing in 2025 –
If the mission is completely successful, it would be a relief for NASA, which originally expected to launch the SLS in 2017 and will have invested more than 90,000 million dollars in its new lunar program by 2025, according to what was established by a public audit.
The name Artemis was chosen to evoke a female figure, twin sister of the Greek god Apollo, and in counterpoint to the space program that took man to the Moon with that name.
Apollo transported to the lunar surface, between 1969 and 1972, only white men and now NASA wants the first woman and first person of color to reach the Earth’s satellite.
The next mission, Artemis 2, in 2024, will carry astronauts but will not land on the moon. That honor will be reserved for the crew of Artemis 3, which will launch no earlier than 2025. After that, NASA hopes to fly roughly one mission a year.
The US agency’s plan is to build a space station in lunar orbit, called Gateway, and a base on the surface of the Moon.
NASA aspires to test there the technologies necessary to send the first humans to Mars: new suits, a vehicle to move or a possible use of lunar water, among other objectives.
According to space agency director Bill Nelson, a multi-year round trip to Mars aboard Orion could be attempted in the late 2030s.