NASA fuels moon rocket for liftoff on first test flight
CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida.
NASA began fueling its new moon rocket early Monday for liftoff on a test flight to put a crew capsule into lunar orbit for the first time in 50 years.
Thunderstorms delayed the refueling operation by an hour. The threat of lightning has diminished enough to allow the launch team to proceed with loading the rocket’s tanks. But it was unclear to what extent stalled work might shorten the two-hour launch window.
No one was inside the Orion capsule atop the 322-foot (98-meter) rocket at Kennedy Space Center. Instead, three test dummies have been strapped down for the lunar orbit mission, which is expected to last six weeks.
It’s the most powerful rocket NASA has ever built, surpassing the Saturn V that carried astronauts to the moon half a century ago. Thousands of people packed the coast to watch the Space Launch System, or SLS, rocket soar.
Rain pelted the launch site as the launch team finally began loading over 1 million gallons of super cold fuel into the rocket. Forecasters remained optimistic that skies would clear by launch time later in the morning; the rocket is forbidden to fly in the rain.
Besides the weather, launch director Charlie Blackwell-Thompson and his team were dealing with a communications issue involving the Orion capsule.
Engineers raced to figure out an 11-minute delay in communication lines between Launch Control and Orion that occurred Sunday night. Although the issue was resolved Monday morning, NASA needed to know why it happened before committing to launch.
The launch team was also suspicious of any persistent fuel leaks. A pair of Countdown tests earlier this year revealed not just leaks, but other technical issues. NASA officials said they could not be sure of repairs until the final countdown phase.
This first flight of NASA’s 21st century lunar exploration program, named Artemis after Apollo’s mythological twin sister, has been anticipated for years. Repeated delays resulted in billions in budget overruns; this demo alone costs $4.1 billion.
Assuming the test goes well, astronauts would board for the second flight and fly around the moon and back as soon as 2024. A two-person lunar landing could follow by the end of 2025. NASA is aiming for the south pole of the moon.
During Apollo, 12 astronauts landed on the moon from 1969 to 1972, with stays of only a few days. NASA seeks to establish a lunar base during Artemis, with astronauts in and out for weeks at a time. The next stage would be Mars, possibly in the late 2030s or early 2040s.
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