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Moon-Rocket Test Moves NASA Closer to Next Artemis Launch Attempt
Engineers dealt with hydrogen leaks during a fueling practice run Wednesday, but the agency said the effort met its goals
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration has twice called off potential Artemis launches from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida .
By Micah Maidenberg, WSJ
Updated Sept. 21, 2022 6:25 pm ET
NASA said it completed a practice run of fueling the agency’s moon rocket despite encountering hydrogen leaks, bringing the agency a step closer to again trying to launch the massive vehicle.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s test on Wednesday aimed to demonstrate that engineers can transfer vast amounts of super-cold propellants—liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen—into the rocket’s tanks. The hourslong test was a precursor to the agency attempting another launch, after two scrubbed flights over the past month.
Around 10 a.m. Eastern time, NASA teams detected a hydrogen leak during fueling, a spokeswoman said. Engineers paused flowing liquid hydrogen into the rocket as they came up with a plan to deal with the leak, which emerged at a connection point between a fuel line and the Space Launch System rocket, the agency said on Twitter.
NASA’s Artemis I launch has been delayed twice because of liquid-hydrogen problems. It isn’t a new issue for the space agency. Meanwhile, SpaceX has switched to methane. WSJ explains why NASA still uses the leak-prone fuel. Illustration: Laura Kammermann
Later, teams restarted fueling, and shortly before 1:30 p.m. NASA said in a tweet that engineers had successfully filled the liquid-hydrogen tank on the main part of the rocket. That marked a milestone, because the agency wasn’t able to complete fueling earlier this month.
Officials at the agency have twice decided to call off potential launches from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, because of issues that emerged during the fueling process. The Artemis I mission aims to send Orion, a ship on top of the SLS vehicle without astronauts on board, into an orbit of the moon before the ship returns to Earth. Later Artemis missions, part of NASA’s exploration program for the moon and beyond, are slated to return astronauts to lunar orbit and eventually the moon’s surface.
In addition to filling up the main tanks on the SLS rocket, NASA engineers on Wednesday carried out tests of other procedures they would need to complete during an actual launch attempt. The agency said it also had to deal with a separate hydrogen leak during a pressurization test on Wednesday afternoon.
Around 4:30 p.m., NASA said on Twitter that it had met all of the goals engineers had set for the practice fueling effort.
Charlie Blackwell-Thompson, launch director for NASA’s exploration ground systems program, declined to comment on what the effort would mean for a next potential launch attempt. On a NASA livestream, she said teams would analyze data from the practice run.
NASA has said it might try to launch the rocket for the Artemis I mission as soon as Sept. 27. To launch on that date, the agency would also need to obtain a waiver from certain retesting requirements of a flight-termination system on the SLS rocket from a division of the U.S. Space Force.
Engineers in late August scrubbed the first planned Artemis launch after dealing with a hydrogen leak, and because a sensor delivered faulty data during an engine-cooling procedure, officials have said. On Sept. 3, the agency postponed a second launch attempt because of what NASA officials described as a relatively large hydrogen leak.
Technicians replaced seals associated with liquid-hydrogen fuel lines after the second postponed launch, the agency has said. Engineers also practiced a revised approach to fueling the rocket.
Engineers are now focused on “a kinder, gentler loading” of the propellants, one that minimizes intense changes in temperatures or pressure levels, Jeremy Parsons, deputy manager for exploration ground systems at the Kennedy site, said at a briefing Monday.
Liquid hydrogen has benefits as a propellant for rocket launches, but its properties can make it difficult to contain, NASA engineers have said. Some space companies that are developing their own large rockets, such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX, aren’t using liquid hydrogen as a fuel.
NASA officials said Monday they were still analyzing what might have caused the leak that forced the most recent launch attempt to be scrubbed. Engineers found an indication that debris might have affected a seal, but were trying to determine whether that was a factor with the leak, they said. No debris was recovered.
Previously, NASA has disclosed that an operator made an error during the Sept. 3 fueling effort by adding more pressure than planned to a fuel line. While higher than expected, the pressure added during the error wasn’t at maximum levels, and NASA hasn’t concluded that the mistake caused the leak.
Write to Micah Maidenberg at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Corrections & Amplifications
The test of the refueling process for the Artemis I moon rocket occurred on Wednesday. An earlier version of this article incorrectly said it happened on Tuesday. (Corrected on Sept. 21)