NASA’s New Moon rocket caused another fuel leak on Wednesday as engineers tested plumbing before attempting a launch early next week.
The day-long demonstration barely began when dangerous hydrogen fuel started escaping at the same place and time as before, despite new seals and other repairs. Engineers stopped the flow and heated the lines in hopes of sealing the leak, and proceeded to testing. But the leak continued.
Wednesday’s results will determine whether the 322-foot (98-meter) rocket is ready for its first test flight, a mission to orbit the moon with models instead of astronauts.
A hydrogen leak spoiled the first two launch attempts, as well as previous countdown tests. So much hydrogen escaped during the countdown earlier this month that it more than doubled the NASA limit. Wednesday’s leak was close to maxing out, but the launch team was able to bring the leak down to acceptable levels as testing continued.
After the previous delay, NASA replaced two seals. One had a small indentation. Its measurement was just one hundredth of an inch.
“Now that doesn’t look like much, but again we’re dealing with hydrogen,” said Mike Sarafin, the mission’s director, the smallest element on the periodic table.
Wednesday’s goal: Pump nearly 1 million gallons (4 million liters) into the rocket, with minimal leakage. That would set NASA on course for a possible launch attempt on Tuesday, provided the US Space Force extends certification of onboard batteries that are part of the flight safety system.
Besides replacing the seals, NASA changed the refueling process, and more slowly eased the loading of supercooled hydrogen and liquid oxygen. After a leak surfaced on Wednesday, the launch team moved slower to put the plumbing under less pressure.
Once launched, the crew capsule above the rocket will be the first to orbit the Moon in 50 years. The $4.1 billion mission should last more than five weeks, ending with the flow of water into the Pacific Ocean. The astronauts were to board the second test flight, dashing around the moon in 2024. The third mission, targeted for 2025, will see a pair of astronauts actually land on the moon.
The NASA Space Launch System rocket is more powerful than the Saturn 5 rocket that sent Apollo astronauts to the Moon during the late 1960s and early 1970s. The motors and boosters are relays from the now retired space shuttle. Just like now, NASA struggled with the elusive hydrogen leak during the shuttle era, especially during the early 1990s.
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