NASA reshuffles dates for Artemis I launch attempt

Could it be third time lucky? The odds are not in space agency's favor

NASA has once again pushed back the launch of the Artemis I mission to send the SLS rocket and Orion capsule beyond the Moon.

Last week the agency said it was targeting September 23 at the earliest, and September 27 as a potential backup if the launch has to be scrubbed for the third time.

Now NASA has said a cryogenic demonstration will take place no earlier than September 21 and updated its request for a launch opportunity on September 27, with October 2 as backup – which is cutting it close.

The schedule is getting crowded as SpaceX's window to send NASA's Crew-5 mission to the International Space Station opens on October 3.

"Teams are working the upcoming commercial crew launch in parallel to the Artemis I planning and both launch schedules will continue to be assessed over the coming weeks," the agency said.

"NASA and SpaceX will review the Artemis I and Crew-5 prelaunch processing milestones to understand any potential impacts. The agency's Crew-4 return will continue to be planned following a short handover on the space station with Crew-5."

The cryogenic demonstration is to ensure that repairs over the weekend to resolve a hydrogen leak, which canceled launches on August 29 and September 3, have been successful.

"During the demonstration, launch controllers will load supercold liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen into the core stage and interim cryogenic propulsion stage of the SLS rocket," the agency said.

"The demonstration will allow teams to confirm the hydrogen leak has been repaired, evaluate updated propellant loading procedures designed to reduce thermal and pressure-related stress on the system, conduct a kick-start bleed test, and evaluate pre-pressurization procedures."

If a private entity's crewed rocket takes off and Artemis I is left on the pad again, it will be a setback image-wise. With two failed launches of an expendable vehicle costing more than $20 billion, critics will renew calls for NASA to retire from making rockets and contract the work out to companies like SpaceX, whose boosters can be reused.

The longer NASA takes, the higher the chance of another scrub. The SLS began assembly in 2020, and solid rocket boosters ideally shouldn't stay stacked for more than a year.

There is also the issue of batteries for the flight termination system. NASA already had the certification extended from 20 to 25 days, and is now asking for 40. The flight termination system is a safety-critical measure allowing the Eastern Range to blow the rocket up if needed.

"NASA is continuing to respect the Eastern Range's process for review of the agency's request for an extension of the current testing requirement for the flight termination system and is providing additional information and data as needed," it said.

If NASA does not get a waiver on battery certification, the SLS will have to be rolled back to the Vehicle Assembly Building, meaning the dates are moot.

On top of all that, Mission Control will have to cross their fingers for good weather.

Science chief quits

In other suboptimal news, NASA's science chief, Dr Thomas Zurbuchen, yesterday announced his resignation. "I am leaving for two reasons," he wrote. "I believe it is best for NASA, and especially the NASA science community, and I believe it is best for me.

"After 6+ years I feel I have had a chance to implement my best ideas. There are, without doubt, other great leaders with other amazing ideas that need to be tried, and the science community deserves the opportunity to give them that chance. Most importantly, the state of NASA's Science program is strong and ready for that change now. It is a good time for a transition."

Whether the middle of NASA's most ambitious mission for decades could really be called a "good time" is open to interpretation.

ESA director general Josef Aschbacher commented: "You are a friend, trusted partner and incredibly inspiring scientist and manager, to me personally, but also to so many around the globe."

Zurbuchen will leave his post at the end of the year. ®

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