NASA will have to perform flawlessly and have a little luck to hope to launch the Artemis I mission before the end of September.
On September 3, NASA was forced to postpone the departure of the Artemis I mission once again, after an initial postponement on August 29. A bitter double failure for this already controversial vehicle, a real economic abyss very late on the initial schedule.
The Space Launch System had to stay on the ground due to several hydraulic problems. The engineers notably noted a hydrogen leak which they were unable to repair within the time frame. So they were forced to take the craft back to its hangar to restore the rocket to working order.
NASA had to abandon the last firing windows available at the beginning of September. Shortly after the launch, those responsible for the program were very cautious, not to say pessimistic. Chief administrator Bill Nelson notably suggested that a launch would be very unlikely before October (see our article).
But the agency seems to have revised its plans. She now wants to put on a good face and get it over with as quickly as possible; during a mission briefing spotted by Space.com, its officials revived the idea of a launch during a window that will begin on September 16 and end on October 4. For now, the dates selected are September 23 and 27. But there is reason to be skeptical.
Major repairs to be planned
And for good reason: NASA personnel will have their work cut out for them in the coming weeks. To start, we will have to replace the faulty sensor that led to a cooling problem during the August 29 attempt.
We’ll have to fix these pesky leaks once and for all. This will start with repairing the largest gas leak, the one affecting the main launcher’s fuel line. This will require replacing a seal, which requires dismantling part of the distribution circuit. NASA will also have to repair a smaller leak spotted at the level of a connector, approximately at the level of the line between the white and orange parts at the foot of the launcher.
Unfortunately, this also involves carrying out many additional tests which will take some time. These tests are scheduled for September 17; in other words, they will have to be completed very quickly to hope to take off on the 23rd.
In addition, NASA has also redesigned ground crew procedures. Their manager, Mike Bolger, believes in any case that these disappointments could have been avoided if the NASA staff had better prepared its troops. “As a management team, we did not put our operators in the best possible conditions,” he concedes. “We are all responsible for the process.”
FTS Certification Expires Soon
And even if these repairs go exactly as planned, NASA will not be at the end of its troubles. The other problem is that the expiry date of the Flight Termination System (FTS) is imminent. This is a set of powerful explosives whose objective is to completely pulverize the vehicle in the event of a catastrophic accident.
This is crucial for obvious security reasons. It is therefore subject to a very strict certification procedure which is only valid for 25 days. This date is about to be passed; in theory, NASA should therefore take the time to thoroughly retest everything. But this is again a fairly long process that would prevent the SLS from taking off for several weeks, thus pushing the launch back to October.
In an attempt to circumvent this prerequisite, NASA sent an extension request to the US Space Force (USSF). “After several meetings they were open and understood what we are trying to achieve“, explains Jim Free, one of the people in charge of this process. However, he did not specify whether or not the USSF intended to accede to their request. We will have to wait for an official announcement to know for sure.
A busy fall schedule
Finally, NASA will have to deal with many constraints in terms of the schedule. Choosing a launch date is already complicated. The SLS must be able to take off outside the shadow of the Moon; otherwise, the Orion capsule would run out of power. In addition, the agency must also find a window of opportunity that will allow it to communicate with the Deep Space Network, a space communication network that will serve as support for lunar missions.
An already complicated equation to which must be added the very busy schedule for this fall. Indeed, NASA will have a lot to do on June 26, when the DART probe must try to hit an asteroid head-on (see our article).
A few days later, SpaceX will occupy the land with an astronaut launch towards the ISS. Departure is scheduled for October 3. It will therefore be necessary to choose the date in such a way as to avoid any conflict with these missions.
We therefore give you an appointment on September 23 and 27 to witness the launch, assuming that NASA succeeds in overcoming all these obstacles. Otherwise, it will probably be necessary to fall back on the initial prediction of the administrator Nelson, namely a launch at the end of October.