NASA Will Fix Its Moon Rocket On The Pad As Part Of Fresh Launch Bid

NASA-RS-25-HOT-FIRE-TEST-2022
The RS-25 engine during a hot fire test. Image: NASA

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As part of its efforts to launch the first U.S. Moon mission since the Apollo era, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has decided to conduct some of repairs on the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket on the launch pad. After a nail-biting launch attempt late last week that saw the agency stand down after being unable to fix a hydrogen leak, NASA engineers determined that a faulty seal on one of the many propellant loading pipes that connect the rocket to its launcher was responsible. Agency officials then shared in a press conference that they will decide on whether to repair the seal on the launch pad or transport the rocket back to its assembly building, with each option having its own set of advantages and disadvantages.

NASA Begins Work On SLS In Bid To Get Vehicle Operational For Another Launch Attempt

The latest launch attempt for the SLS rocket was on Saturday, which marked NASA's second tryst with liquid hydrogen as a fuel. Hydrogen is one of the most efficient rocket fuels in the market due to its chemical properties, but these properties also end up making it notoriously difficult to deal with. It is the smallest known molecule in the universe, which makes it hard to prevent leaks when the gas is cooled down to extreme levels as required for the SLS rocket.

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The rocket uses the same engines as the Space Shuttle, with a couple of upgrades to the thrust and control instruments. However, the fuel is Hydrogen as well, which then ensures that the legacy of the Shuttle program which also saw several scrubs due to Hydrogen leaks carry themselves over to the SLS's maiden launch attempt.

Prior to attempting liftoff on Saturday, NASA had attempted to launch on Monday but had to cancel as potential sensor problems on the rocket created doubt about whether the engines were cool enough for ignition. The agency then determined that the engines were being chilled to the correct temperatures and that it would proceed with another launch attempt on Saturday.

The SLS rocket is seen inside NASA's VAB in March this year. Image: NASA/Kim Shiflett

However, the Saturday launch attempt was scrubbed when engineers discovered that a quick disconnect arm responsible for connecting the rocket's hydrogen fuel lines had sprung a leak. This arm is connected to the rocket through a seal, and this seal can be dispositioned if its temperature rapidly rises and drops. Engineers attempted to stop the leak by stopping the hydrogen flow to the rocket multiple times, but when this failed, the launch attempt was called off by the Artemis 1 launch director Ms. Charlie Blackwell-Thomspon.

In a press conference held later that day, NASA's mission manager Mr. Mike Sarafin detailed the way forward and explained that his agency will either replace the seal on the launch pad or transport the rocket back to the vehicle assembly building. Each approach had its pros and cons, and Mr. Sarafin outlined during the event that:

So the team is developing a series of schedule options and we're going to hear about those early next week. The schedule options include removal and replacement of the soft goods [THE SEAL] on the disconnect at the pad, followed by a cryo test - that is the only cryo test to ensure that we do not have a further issue with respect to leaks at the temperatures that we need to fill the vehicle on day of launch. The other option is to roll back and remove and replace the quick disconnect soft goods in the vehicle assembly building. There's a risk versus restraint. Doing at the pad you're exposed to the environmental conditions. We need to build an environmental enclosure to do that. We do it in the vehicle assembly building, the vehicle assembly building is the environmental enclosure. However, we cannot test this quick disconnect at the VAB at cryogenic temperature, we can only do it at ambient temperatures.

NASA has now decided to replace the seal on the launch pad, following in line with Mr. Sarafin's assessment shared during the conference that a replacement is one of the simplest solutions to a leak of this nature that saw the concentration of hydrogen in the air surrounding the rocket rise to up to four times the safety hazard limit.

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