NASA delays moon rocket liftoff after engine trouble

Tens of thousands of spectators gather in Cape Canaveral for launch of NASA’s Artemis mission to return humans to the moon.

A full moon, known as the "Strawberry Moon", is shown with the top of NASA’s next-generation moon rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS) Artemis 1, at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida.
A full moon is shown with the top of NASA’s next-generation moon rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS) Artemis 1, at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, the US, June 15, 2022 [File: Joe Skipper/ Reuters]

NASA’s has postponed the debut launch of its most powerful rocket yet which had been set to kickoff the United States space agency’s mission to take humans back to the moon and eventually to Mars.

Fifty years after the last Apollo mission, the the unmanned Space Launch System (SLS) rocket that is the hallmark of the Artemis mission was scheduled to     blast off at 8:33am (12:33 GMT) from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Monday. The launch was scrubbed due to a problem with engine number three.

The mission’s next launch window is Friday at 12:48pm EDT (17:48 GMT). The SLS will only launch if the engine issue is resolved.

Tens of thousands of people, including US Vice President Kamala Harris, had been expected to watch the launch, with hotels around Cape Canaveral booked out for the event. Harris had landed at Cape Canaveral just before the launch was postponed.

“This mission goes with a lot of hopes and dreams of a lot of people. And we now are the Artemis generation,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said on Saturday.

The goal of the six-week test flight, named Artemis 1, is to test the SLS and the Orion crew capsule that sits atop the rocket. The capsule will orbit the moon to see if the vessel is safe for people in the near future.

In lieu of astronauts, three test dummies are strapped into the capsule to measure vibration, acceleration and radiation, one of the biggest hazards to humans in deep space.

The capsule alone has more than 1,000 sensors.

The SLS-Orion combo, standing 98 metres (322 feet) tall, form the centrepiece of the US space agency’s successor to the Apollo moon programme of the 1960s and 1970s. Billed as the most powerful, complex rocket in the world, the SLS represents the biggest new vertical launch system NASA has built since the Saturn V flown for Apollo.

The next mission, Artemis 2, will take astronauts into orbit around the Moon without landing on its surface. If the first two Artemis missions succeed, NASA is aiming to land astronauts back on the moon, including the first woman to set foot on the lunar surface, as early as 2025, though many experts believe that timeframe is likely to slip by a few years.

The last humans to walk on the moon were the two-man descent team of Apollo 17 in 1972, following in the footsteps of 10 other astronauts during five earlier missions beginning with Apollo 11 in 1969.

The Artemis programme seeks to eventually establish a long-term lunar base as a stepping stone to even more ambitious astronaut voyages to Mars, a goal that NASA officials have said will probably take until at least the late 2030s to achieve.

Jack Burns, an astrophysicist at the University of Colorado in Boulder, said the Artemis missions will be utilising new technology not available during the Apollo mission.

“Going forward to the moon is the right way to describe it, because it’s not your grandfather’s Apollo programme,” he told Al Jazeera. “This is all new technology, new motivation, new opportunity. Bringing all that technology to the moon is going to be exciting.”

NASA said there is an 80 percent chance of acceptable weather for a liftoff on time at the beginning of a launch window lasting two hours.

“Everything to date looks good from a vehicle perspective,” said Jeff Spaulding, senior NASA test director. “We are excited, the vehicle is ready, it looks great.”

Although lightning rods at the launch site were struck during a storm on Saturday, Spaulding said he has not “seen anything on the ground systems that give us any concerns”.

NASA said there was no damage to the spacecraft or launch facilities.

If the countdown clock is halted for any reason, NASA has set September 2 and September 5 as potential backup launch dates.

Al Jazeera’s Manuel Rapalo said the excitement from spectators at Cape Canaveral was palpable.

“Years overdue, and billions over budget, the moment is almost here for the launch of Artemis I, with more than 100 000 people expected to attend, all of them collectively crossing their fingers for a successful lift-off,” he said.


Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies