NASA’s megarocket is standing down from a scheduled test flight to the moon, agency officials announced Monday.
NASA's uncrewed Space Launch System (SLS) and the Orion capsule were slated to launch on a test flight to the moon, named Artemis I, but engine troubles thwarted the much-anticipated liftoff.
Engineers detected an issue with one of the fuel lines as the rocket was being loaded with propellant. A liquid hydrogen line used to cool the rocket's core-stage engines malfunctioned partway through the launch countdown, and the test flight was eventually called off after troubleshooting efforts failed.
The SLS rocket’s four core-stage engines need to be cooled to cryogenic temperatures prior to launch to avoid shocking the system with ultracold fuel when ignited.
A new launch date has not yet been announced, but Mike Sarafin, the Artemis mission manager at NASA Headquarters, said in a news briefing Monday that the agency may try again as early as Friday, if it's safe to do so. NASA has another backup launch opportunity on Sept. 5.
Launch delays are not uncommon, particularly when it comes to testing a new rocket or spacecraft that will eventually carry humans. NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said Monday that the agency will not go through with the test until the vehicle is ready.
"When you're dealing in a high-risk business — and spaceflight is risky — that's what you do," he said. "You buy down that risk. You make it as safe as possible."
NASA officials said the rocket and spacecraft are currently "in a stable, safe condition," adding that engineers will continue to gather data from the vehicle on the launch pad. The agency is expected to hold another briefing Tuesday to discuss initial findings from the investigation.
Monday’s event was to be the first liftoff of the 322-foot-tall Space Launch System, a next-generation booster that NASA says is the “most powerful rocket in the world.” The test flight is designed to test both the huge SLS rocket and the Orion capsule before the agency sends astronauts back to the lunar surface.
The Artemis I delay comes after more than a decade of work by NASA to develop a new megarocket that surpasses the capabilities and size of the iconic Saturn V rockets used during the agency’s Apollo moon program, which ended in the 1970s. The initiative has been criticized over the years for being years behind schedule and billions of dollars over budget.
In a House Science Committee hearing earlier this year, NASA Inspector General Paul Martin said the agency will likely spend $93 billion on the Artemis program from 2012 to 2025.
NASA’s return to the moon program, Artemis, is named after the goddess of Greek mythology who was the twin sister of Apollo. As part of the Artemis program, NASA envisions regular missions to the moon to establish a base camp on the lunar surface, before the agency eventually ventures to Mars.
NASA officials have said astronauts could return to the surface of the moon as early as 2025.