NASA will take its fourth crack at fueling up its Artemis 1 moon rocket in June that, if all goes according to plan, could set the stage for its first launch in August.
The Artemis 1 stack — a huge Space Launch System (SLS) rocket with an Orion crew capsule on top — rolled out to Pad 39B at NASA's Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida in mid-March for its "wet dress rehearsal," a crucial series of tests that includes fueling up the SLS.
The wet dress began on April 1 and was supposed to wrap up two days later. But the Artemis 1 team encountered several problems, including a stuck valve on the mission's mobile launch tower and a hydrogen leak in one of the "umbilical" lines connecting the tower to the SLS, which delayed and ultimately halted the wet dress after three fueling attempts.
On April 25, team members rolled the Artemis 1 stack off Pad 39B back to KSC's cavernous Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) to investigate the problems and make the necessary fixes. That work has been going well, NASA officials said during a call with reporters today (May 5).
For example, the team has replaced the faulty valve and figured out why it got stuck: a piece of rubber debris prevented it from sealing properly. That debris was not part of the valve; where it came from remains under investigation, agency officials said. And the helium leak likely resulted because some of the umbilical's bolts loosened slightly due to relaxed compression on a gasket.
Work on the Artemis 1 stack continues, but the team is optimistic it will be done soon, paving the way for another wet dress try.
"We're looking right now at that next wet dress in the early to mid-June timeframe," Jim Free, associate administrator for the Exploration Systems Development Mission Directorate at NASA headquarters in Washington, said during today's call.
That schedule would require a rollout from the VAB by late May because the Artemis 1 team needs 12 to 14 days to prep for the wet dress once SLS and Orion are on the launch pad, Free added.
Free expressed confidence that the fourth time would be the charm for the wet dress, but he acknowledged that "it may take more than one attempt to get the procedures where we need them."
He also stressed that encountering issues during the vetting of a brand-new launch system is far from surprising. He gave several other examples, including that of the space shuttle, which rolled out to the pad for its wet dress in December 1980 but didn't launch for the first time until April 12, 1981.
"It is a challenge to work these new systems and these complicated vehicles," Free said. "We certainly own where our program is, but I think we're in family of where we've been in the past."
NASA won't set a target launch date for Artemis 1 until the wet dress is done and the resulting data analyzed. But, during today's call, Free mentioned August as the likely earliest available timeframe at this point.
Artemis 1 will send an uncrewed Orion on a roughly month-long journey around the moon. The mission — the first in NASA's Artemis program of lunar exploration — is designed to ensure that both SLS and Orion are ready for crewed flights.
If all goes well with Artemis 1, Artemis 2 will send astronauts around the moon in 2024 and Artemis 3 will land a crew near the lunar south pole in 2025 or thereabouts.
Mike Wall is the author of "Out There (opens in new tab)" (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book about the search for alien life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall (opens in new tab). Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom (opens in new tab) or on Facebook (opens in new tab).