CAPE CANAVERAL, FL. — NASA’s New Moon rocket suffered another fuel leak Wednesday as engineers checked plumbing ahead of a launch attempt as early as next week.
The day’s demonstration had just begun when dangerous hydrogen fuel began to leak in the same place and time as before, despite new seals and other repairs. Engineers shut off the flow and heated the lines in hopes of eliminating the leak, and began 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 a lunar orbit with dummies instead of astronauts.
Hydrogen leaks marred the first two launch attempts as well as earlier countdown tests. So much hydrogen leaked out during the countdown earlier this month that it more than doubled NASA’s limit. Wednesday’s leak came close to the limit, but the launch team managed to reduce the leak to an acceptable level as the test continued.
After the previous delay, NASA replaced the two seals. One had a tiny indentation; it was only one-hundredth of an inch.
“Now that doesn’t sound like a lot, but then again we’re dealing with hydrogen,” the smallest element in Mendeleev’s periodic table, said mission manager Mike Sarafin.
Wednesday’s goal: to 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 renews certification for the batteries on board, which are part of the flight safety system.
In addition to replacing the seals, NASA changed the refueling process, loosening the loading of super-cold liquid hydrogen and oxygen. After the leak appeared Wednesday, the launch team moved even more slowly to put even less strain on the plumbing.
Once launched, the crew capsule atop the rocket will be the first to orbit the moon in 50 years. The $4.1 billion mission is expected to last more than five weeks and end with a crash in the Pacific Ocean. Astronauts will climb aboard for a second test flight, orbiting the moon in 2024. A third mission, planned for 2025, will actually land a pair of astronauts on the moon.
NASA’s Space Launch System rocket is more powerful than the Saturn V rocket that sent the Apollo astronauts to the moon in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The engines and boosters are carryovers from the now-retired space shuttles. As now, NASA struggled with elusive hydrogen leaks during the shuttle era, especially in the early 1990s.
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