CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) — An approaching storm threatens to delay NASA’s next launch attempt for its new moon rocket, which has already been grounded for weeks by fuel leaks.
A tropical depression in the southern Caribbean is moving toward Florida and could become a major hurricane.
Managers on Friday declared that the rocket is now ready to launch on its first test flight, after overcoming several hydrogen leaks during a fuel test earlier in the week. It will be the first time a crewed capsule has orbited the moon in 50 years; the spacecraft will carry mannequins, but no astronauts.
The teams will continue to monitor the forecast and decide by Saturday at the latest whether to not only delay the test flight but pull the rocket off the pad and back to the hangar. It is unclear when the next launch attempt will be – either October or even November – if the rocket will have to seek shelter indoors.
The preference is to stay on the launch pad and try for a Tuesday, “but there are still some uncertainties in the forecast,” said NASA’s Tom Whitmeyer, deputy assistant administrator for exploration systems.
It takes three days of preparation to get the rocket back into the Kennedy Space Center’s gigantic Vehicle Assembly Building, a 6.4-kilometer trip that lasts several hours.
“I don’t think we’re cutting it close,” Whitmeyer told reporters. “We’re just taking one step at a time.”
The 322-foot (98-meter) rocket can withstand wind gusts of 137 km/h at the pad, but only 74 km/h when in motion.
This would be the third launch attempt for the Space Launch System rocket, the most powerful ever built by NASA. Fuel leaks and other technical problems scrapped the first two attempts, in late August and early September.
Although hydrogen fuel seeped past newly installed seals during Wednesday’s dress rehearsal, the launch team got the leak down to acceptable levels by slowing the flow and depressurizing the lines. That gave the launch team the confidence to proceed with a launch attempt on Tuesday, officials said.
Executives said the 30-year-old space shuttle program also saw numerous hydrogen fuel leaks and hurricane-related rollbacks. The lunar rocket’s main engines are actually upgraded versions of what flew on shuttles.
The Space Force has also extended the certification of on-board batteries that are part of the flight safety system – at least through the beginning of October.
NASA has only two chances to launch the rocket — Tuesday and Oct. 2 — before a two-week blackout period begins. The next launch period would open on October 17.
Astronauts would climb aboard for the second test flight around the moon in 2024. The third mission, targeted for 2025, would see a pair of astronauts land on the moon.
The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. AP is solely responsible for all content.