The liftoff of the Artemis 1 mission to the Moon postponed

The liftoff towards the Moon of the new rocket of NASA, the most powerful of the world, was cancelled Monday because of a technical problem. But the launch can still take place during the next launch window, this Friday, estimated an official of the American space agency.

Fifty years after the last flight of Apollo, the Artemis 1 mission must mark the beginning of the American program of return on the Moon to allow the humanity to reach Mars.

“We keep the option of Friday,” said in press conference the person in charge of the mission, Mike Sarafin, without wanting to advance more. He indicated that the analyses of the teams of NASA would start again as of Tuesday in order to have a better idea of the time necessary to regulate the problems which occurred, in particular concerning one of the engines.

If liftoff does not occur on Friday, another launch window exists on September 5. The possibility of takeoff is then interrupted until September 19.

This is the first time the 98-meter tall orange and white SLS rocket is scheduled to fly. NASA officials had repeated all weekend that this was a test flight and that technical mishaps could occur at any time, despite several dress rehearsals in recent months.

“I’m a little disappointed, but […] I’m not surprised,” astronaut Stan Love, who has been working on the program for two decades, told reporters on site in Florida. “It’s a brand new vehicle, it has millions of parts, and all of them have to work perfectly.”

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Engine problem

The launch was originally scheduled for 8:33 a.m. from Launch Pad 39B at Kennedy Space Center.

The filling of the tanks of the rocket with its ultra-cold fuel (liquid hydrogen and oxygen) had begun with approximately one hour of delay because of a lightning risk. Then a leak caused a pause during the filling of the main stage with hydrogen.

Around 7 am, a new problem appeared: one of the four RS-25 engines, under the main stage of the rocket, could not reach the desired temperature, a necessary condition to be able to ignite it. A valve problem was also encountered, said Mike Sarafin.

The countdown was then stopped, and after more than an hour of waiting, NASA launch director Charlie Blackwell-Thompson made the decision to cancel the launch: the launch window was only two hours long and there was not enough time to fix the problem.

“We’re not taking off until everything is ready,” said NASA boss Bill Nelson, just after the cancellation. Engineers “will get to the bottom of the problem, fix it, and we will fly,” he assured.

Putting the foot on the Moon

Thousands of people came to see the show, including the Vice President of the United States, Kamala Harris.

The mission is to propel the unmanned Orion capsule into orbit around the Moon to verify that the vehicle is safe for future astronauts, including the first woman and the first person of color to walk on the lunar surface.

The primary objective of Artemis 1 is to test the capsule’s heat shield, which will re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere at nearly 40,000 mph and reach a temperature of half that of the Sun’s surface.

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Instead of astronauts, dummies equipped with sensors recording vibrations and radiation levels will be on board. Microsatellites will also be deployed to study the Moon. The capsule will venture up to 64,000 km behind Earth’s natural satellite, farther than any other habitable spacecraft to date.

A complete failure of the mission would be devastating for this rocket, which has a huge budget (US$4.1 billion per launch, according to a public audit) and is years behind schedule (it was ordered in 2010 by the U.S. Congress for an initial liftoff date of 2017).

After Artemis, Mars

After this first mission, Artemis 2 will carry in 2024 astronauts to the Moon, without landing there. The honor will be reserved to the crew of Artemis 3, in 2025 at the earliest. NASA hopes to launch about one mission per year thereafter.

The goal: to establish a lasting human presence on the Moon, with the construction of a space station (Gateway) in orbit around the only natural satellite of the Earth and a base on the lunar surface.

There, humanity must learn to live in deep space and develop all the technologies necessary for a return trip to Mars, a multi-year journey that could take place “by the end of the decade 2030,” according to Bill Nelson.

But before that, going to the Moon is also strategic, in the face of the ambitions of competing nations, notably China.