NASA fuels moon rocket in test, hit again with pesky leaks

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CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida (AFP) – NASA’s New Moon rocket posted more fuel leaks Wednesday in a test ahead of a possible launch attempt next week, but engineers have managed to reduce them to acceptable levels.

There was no immediate decision on whether NASA would attempt takeoff on Tuesday given the intermittent nature of the hydrogen leaks, which have baffled the launch team for months.

Launch manager Charlie Blackwell Thompson did not commit to a launch attempt date, though she said the test went well.

“We’re going to go look at the data,” she said. “I would like the team to have the opportunity to look at that before I expect.”

The day-long demonstration barely began when dangerous hydrogen fuel started escaping at the same place and time as before, despite new seals and other repairs. Engineers stopped the flow and heated the lines in hopes of sealing the leak, and proceeded to testing. But the leakage continued before it fell to acceptable levels. Hours later, another leak occurred elsewhere, before tapering off.

Blackwell-Thompson said all testing goals have been met. But managers must review the results before deciding whether the 322-foot (98-meter) rocket is ready for its first test flight, a moon-orbiting mission with models instead of astronauts.

A hydrogen leak spoiled the first two launch attempts, as well as previous countdown tests. So much hydrogen escaped during the countdown earlier this month that it more than doubled the NASA limit. Wednesday’s leak almost got that big again.

After hours of fits and starts, NASA was finally able to load nearly 1 million gallons (4 million liters) of fuel into the rocket.

After a launch delay on September 3, NASA replaced two of the seals in the leaky line. One of the seals had a small gap; Its measurement was just one hundredth of an inch.

“Now that doesn’t look like much, but again we’re dealing with hydrogen,” said mission manager Mike Sarafin, the smallest element on the periodic table.

NASA also changed the refueling process, slowly easing the loading of supercooled hydrogen and liquid oxygen. After Wednesday’s big leak surfaced, the launch team moved slower to put the plumbing under less stress.

On a separate matter, NASA still needs the US Space Force to extend certification of on-board batteries that are part of the flight safety system before another launch is attempted.

Once launched, the crew capsule above the rocket will be the first to orbit the Moon in 50 years. The $4.1 billion mission should last more than five weeks, ending with the flow of water into the Pacific Ocean. The astronauts were to board the second test flight, dashing around the moon in 2024. The third mission, targeted for 2025, will see a pair of astronauts actually land on the moon.

The NASA Space Launch System rocket is more powerful than the Saturn 5 rocket that sent Apollo astronauts to the Moon during the late 1960s and early 1970s. The motors and boosters are relays from the now retired space shuttle. Just like now, NASA struggled with the elusive hydrogen leak during the shuttle era, especially during the early 1990s.

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The Associated Press’s Department of Health and Science receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Division of Science Education. AP is solely responsible for all content.

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