CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) — NASA was targeting a new moon rocket launch Saturday after fixing fuel leaks and working around a bad engine sensor that failed the first attempt.
The inaugural flight of the 322-foot (98-meter) rocket — the most powerful ever built by NASA — slowly delayed Monday’s countdown. Kennedy Space Center clocks started ticking again as managers expressed confidence in their plan and forecasters gave favorable weather chances.
Atop the rocket is a crew capsule with three test dummies that will fly around the moon and back over the course of six weeks – NASA’s first such attempt since the Apollo program 50 years ago. NASA wants to squeeze the spacecraft before it welcomes astronauts on its next scheduled flight in two years.
NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said he is more confident about the second launch attempt, given everything engineers learned from the first attempt.
So is astronaut Jessica Meir, who is on NASA’s short list to be one of the original Moon crews.
“We’re all excited for this to happen, but the most important thing is that we go when we’re ready and do it right, because the next missions will have people on board. Maybe me, maybe my friends,” Meir told The Associated Press on Friday.
Engineers in charge of the Space Launch System rocket insisted Thursday night that all four of the rocket’s main engines were fine and that a faulty temperature sensor made one of them appear to be too hot Monday. The engines must match the minus-420 degrees Fahrenheit (minus-250 degrees Celsius) of the liquid hydrogen fuel at startup, or they could be damaged and shut down in flight.
“We’ve convinced ourselves beyond a shadow of a doubt that we have good quality liquid hydrogen going through the engines,” said John Honeycutt, the rocket’s program manager.
Once fueling begins Saturday morning, the launch team will perform another engine test — this time earlier in the countdown. Even if that suspect sensor indicates that one engine is too hot, you can rely on other sensors to make sure everything is working properly and stop the countdown if there’s a problem, Honeycutt told reporters.
NASA was unable to perform this type of engine test during dress rehearsals earlier this year due to a fuel leak. More fuel leaks were cut on Monday. the technicians found some loose connections and tightened them.
The engine temperature condition increases the risk of the flight, as does another problem that surfaced Monday: cracks in the rocket’s foam insulation. If any pieces of foam break off during lifting, they could hit the belt boosters and damage them. Engineers consider the likelihood of this happening to be low and have accepted these slight additional risks.
“This is an extremely complex machine and system. Millions of parts,” NASA chief Nelson told the AP. “There are, in fact, risks. But are these risks acceptable? I leave that to the experts. My role is to remind them that you don’t take risks that are not acceptable.”
The $4.1 billion test flight is NASA’s first step toward sending astronauts around the Moon in 2024 and landing them on the surface in 2025. Astronauts last walked on the moon in 1972.
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