1 of 4 | Artemis 1 is seen on Launch Complex 39B at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Monday. The massive SLS moon rocket was scheduled to blast off, but technical problems led NASA to scrub the launch until at least Friday. Photo by Pat Benic/UPI | License Photo
Aug. 29 (UPI) -- After years of conceptualizing, planning and testing, NASA on Monday hoped to take the initial operational step toward returning human astronauts to the moon for the first time in a half-century -- but technical issues grounded the historic flight.
Artemis I, the long-awaited first mission that will pave the way for humans to return to the lunar surface, was scheduled to lift off at the Kennedy Space Center on Monday aboard the massive new Space Launch System for a 42-day mission to send the Orion spacecraft to the moon and back.
The launch window opened at 8:33 a.m. EDT from Complex 39B at the Kennedy Space Center in central Florida, but there were problems with the temperature of the hydrogen fuel on engine number three on the SLS' core stage, which is the large orange tank that has four main engines.
The technical difficulties prompted launch controllers to halt the countdown at T-40 minutes -- the point on the clock that marked 40 minutes to liftoff -- and engineers and flight managers weighed the problem before launch director Charlie Blackwell-Thompson ultimately called off the launch for Monday.
NASA said none of the attempted remedies worked and it was decided that engineers wouldn't have enough time to fix it before the two-hour launch window closed.
In a briefing later Monday, Artemis mission manager Mike Sarafin said that "a series of weather issues throughout the launch window" also factored into the decision to scrub the launch.
"We would have been a no-go for weather at the beginning of the window due to precipitation. Later on in the window, we would have been no-go for lightning within the launchpad area," he said.
The countdown-to-launch clock is seen stopped at 40 minutes on Monday at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Controllers made the unplanned halt due to a fuel issue with one of the SLS rocket's main engines. Photo by Pat Benic/UPI
NASA said the Space Launch System rocket and Orion spacecraft "remain in a safe and stable configuration," as it prepares for a potential launch later this week.
"Launch controllers were continuing to evaluate why a bleed test to get the RS-25 engines on the bottom of the core stage to the proper temperature range for liftoff was not successful and ran out of time in the two-hour launch window. Engineers are continuing to gather additional data," the space agency said.
The next available window to launch Artemis I will be Friday afternoon. After that, the next opportunity would be Sept. 5. However, the viability of launching in either of those windows depends entirely on how long it will take engineers to resolve the engine trouble that blocked Monday's flight.
"Friday is definitely in play," Artemis mission manager Mike Sarafin said in a briefing after the launch was scrubbed. "We just need a little bit of time to look at the data but the team is setting up for a 96-hour recycle. They're still holding in the launch countdown configuration and they're replenishing the launch commodities out at Launch Complex 39B."
Sarafin said, however, he wouldn't speculate on what the chances of a Friday launch are, adding the team worked through "a number of issues today" and would reconvene on Tuesday.
"We're going to give the team time to rest, first of all, and then to come back fresh tomorrow and reassess what we learned today and then develop a series of options," He said. "it's too early to say what the options are."
NASA ran into a similar problem in June during the rocket's wet dress rehearsal, which means a launch rehearsal with actual fueling of the rocket. Again, there was an issue with a bleed line that carries fuel from the core stage to the pad and engineers weren't able to fix it then, either. The overall test, however, was a success.
Earlier Monday, NASA reported a small fuel leak, but didn't give any indication that it would cause trouble with the launch. The fueling process of the SLS, which involves super-cold hydrogen and oxygen, was halted a few times due to the leak. Stormy weather had already delayed the fueling for a short time.
Engineers said they were also looking at what appeared to be a crack on the core stage. Some frost around the crack drew their attention.
On Sunday, NASA said Artemis I was in good position to take off Monday despite recording five "events" from at least one lightning strike at the launch site as weather forced work planned into Sunday night to be "pulled in."
NASA administrator Bill Nelson said that "scrubs are just part of this program" as the agency seeks to prioritize safety.
"When you're dealing in a high risk business and spaceflight is risky, that's what you do. You buy down that risk, you make it safe as possible and of course that is the whole reason for this test flight. To stress it and to test it, to make sure it's as safe as possible when Artemis II, when we put humans on the next spacecraft," he said.
Nelson stressed that NASA would not launch "until it's right."
"You can't go. There are certain guidelines," he added. "This is part of the space business."
He added that Vice President Kamala Harris was present for the planned launch and was "pumped" throughout as she affirmed the administration's commitment to the program on Twitter.
"While we hoped to see the launch of Artemis I today, the attempt provided valuable data as we test the most powerful rocket in history. Our commitment to the Artemis PRogram remains firm and we will return to the moon," Harris wrote.
The uncrewed Artemis I mission is the first for the Space Launch System, which is paired with the Orion capsule. The primary goal of the mission is to ensure the SLS can do its job and the Orion spacecraft can safely deliver astronauts back to Earth.
"Artemis I is that first step down this path when we talk about sustained exploration on the lunar surface. This is our exploration system. I hope that everyone takes some pride nationally for what we've been able to do and where we are today," NASA Associate Administrator, Exploration Systems Jim Free said during a press briefing on Friday.
It's been a very long road for NASA, scientists and the space-loving public to get back to this point since the last human mission to the moon 50 years ago.
When Apollo 17 landed on the moon in 1972, everyone already knew that it would be the last human flight to the lunar surface for a long time. For they knew that it had already been a very expensive endeavor and NASA had other plans for the future that did not involve a return to the moon.
As Neil Armstrong was famously the first human to walk on the lunar surface, astronaut Gene Cernan was the last on Dec. 14, 1972.
"As I take man's last step from the surface ... for some time to come, but we believe not too long into the future, I'd like to just say what I believe history will record that America's challenge of today has forged man's destiny of tomorrow," Cernan said before he climbed back into the lunar module for the return to Earth.
"And as we leave the moon ... we leave as we came, and God willing as we shall return, with peace and hope for all mankind."
The space shuttle became NASA's top priority from its development in the mid-1970s until it was retired in 2011. Two disasters and the loss of 14 astronauts hastened the end to the space shuttle, which never fulfilled its goal of becoming an inexpensive reusable space vehicle.
A return to the moon wouldn't become a goal again at NASA until 2005 when the Constellation program was announced. Its main goals were finishing the International Space Station, returning to the moon no later than 2020 and sending a human mission to Mars. President Barack Obama canceled Constellation in 2010 when it was learned that the program would be too costly.
The formal law that canceled Constellation, however, directly led to the Space Launch System and ultimately the Artemis program.
NASA's Lunar Gateway Program aims to establish a space station orbiting the moon that will serve future lunar missions and is on schedule for launch by SpaceX in 2024. Artemis II, a crewed mission that will orbit the moon, is scheduled for sometime in 2024 and Artemis III, which will return humans to the lunar surface, sometime in 2025.
Holly Ridings, deputy director of the Gateway Program, said that the 12 years leading up to the launch have all been "positive trajectory."
"We created what we have today, Artemis I, SLS and Orion, out on the launchpad ready to go, and even beyond that, the entire Artemis enterprise. The process to me was one of resilience in a way that we always use," she told UPI.
The Space Launch System (SLS) rocket carrying an Orion spacecraft lifts off on the maiden flight of NASA's Artemis Program from Complex 39-B at the Kennedy Space Center on November 16, 2022. Photo by Joe Marino/UPI | License Photo