NASA administrators cleared the agency’s leaking Artemis lunar rocket to begin another countdown early Monday, but engineers must resolve questions about hurricane-damaged insulation before the massive blast booster is unloaded on an unmanned projectile.
After several delays due to hydrogen fuel leaks and other glitches, besides biting the nails of the rocketLast week, NASA administrators met Sunday to review launch preparations and agreed to begin a 47-hour, 10-minute countdown at 1:54 a.m. EDT on Monday. The launch is scheduled for 1:04 a.m. Wednesday.
But the high winds from Nicole caused a thin strip of dam-like substance known as RTV to be removed and pulled away from the base of the protective nose cone of the Orion crew capsule at the top of the rocket.
The material is used to fill a slight indentation where the fairing is attached to the capsule, reducing the aerodynamic heating during ascent. The gift fits over the Orion capsule and is disposed of once the rocket exits the dense lower atmosphere.
“It was an area of about 10 feet (on the leeward side) where the storm swept in,” said mission director Mike Sarafin. “It’s a very, very thin layer of RTV, about 0.2 inch thick or less…”.
Engineers do not have access to repairs to the platform and must develop ‘reasons for flight’ i.e. justification for flying though RTV, in order to proceed with the launch. Managers want to ensure that any additional material pulled away during flight will not affect or damage downstream components.
This case is reminiscent of a discussion that followed a foamy debris incident in October 2002 that disintegrated an array of electronics at the base of a shuttle booster. In this case, NASA chose to continue flying while engineers developed a solution. After two flights, the impact of another foam caused fatal damage to the left wing of the shuttle Columbia.
Sarafin said the SLS missile, which is performing an unmanned test flight, is “a fundamentally different vehicle design.”
“The car in this case is longer, and we need to take that into account,” he said. “But in terms of multiplying the critical components…the physics is the same, and the analysis is very similar. But where the critical components are (it is) is very different.”
In any case, NASA’s mission management team plans to meet again on Monday to review the rationale for the flight and determine if the countdown can begin.
If all goes well, the launch team will begin pumping 750,000 gallons of ultra-cooled liquid oxygen and hydrogen fuel back into the rocket’s massive tanks starting at just 4 p.m. Tuesday, using modified “thinner and gentler” technologies to control temperatures and reduce jumps. Sharp pressure to prevent leakage in critical seals.
Should any issues arise, engineers will have two hours to resolve them before closing the operation window.
But 90% weather has “kicked off,” and if refueling procedures work as intended, the 322-foot Space Launch System rocket’s four main engines and extended solid-fuel boosters will finally spring to life at 1:04 a.m. Wednesday, opening A new era in American spaceflight.
Night turns into day briefly as it climbs over 8.8 million pounds of thrust, and the 5.7 million pound SLS will accelerate quickly as it consumes propellant and loses weight, outpacing the speed of sound in less than a minute.
The two belt boosters that provide the lion’s share of the rocket’s initial thrust will burn out and fall about 2 minutes 10 seconds after liftoff. The four hydrogen-fueled engines powering the primary stage will shut down after six minutes, putting the Orion capsule and the second stage of the SLS into an initial elliptical orbit.
After the low point is lifted from orbit, the single engine powering the temporary cryogenic thrust stage, or ICPS, will fire again about 90 minutes after launch to exit Earth orbit and head for the Moon. The Orion capsule and its service module will separate after a few minutes to continue the rest of the journey on its own.
The goal of the Artemis 1 mission is to send the Orion spacecraft in a loop past the moon in a critical test of the craft’s propulsion, navigation and solar energy systems before returning to Earth for a 5,000-degree reentry and scattering into the air. Pacific Ocean west of San Diego.
If the Artemis 1 flight goes well, NASA plans to launch four astronauts atop a second SLS for a lunar extortion mission — Artemis 2 — in late 2024, followed by an astronaut landing mission in the 2025-26 time frame.
But that assumes Artemis 1 flight went well. As Jim Frey, Director of Exploration Systems at NASA Headquarters, said Friday, “We’ll never get to Artemis 2 if Artemis 1 doesn’t make it.”
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