After repeated delays, NASA is lightly penciling in September 23rd or 27th launch dates for its Artemis I mission. A lot of things have to go right to make either of those dates possible, including repairs to the rocket’s fuel system, sign-off from the Space Force and avoiding an assortment of space scheduling conflicts.
Artemis I will mark the first launch of the agency’s Large Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and send the Orion spacecraft into orbit far beyond the Moon. The mission was uncrewed and would serve as a testbed for subsequent missions that would send astronauts to the moon for the first time in decades.
After NASA’s third attempt to launch the mission on September 3 failed due to a hydrogen leak, NASA decided to stay on the launchpad and make repairs. They replace the seals on the connection between the rocket and the fuel lines that feed the liquid hydrogen fuel into the rocket. Being on the pad allows the team to test the new seals in cryogenic temperatures, simulating the conditions that would occur during an actual launch.
They’re currently targeting September 17th for that crucial cryogenic test, just days before that first launch window opens on the 23rd. They need four days between a successful test and a launch attempt, Mike Bolger, program manager for Exploration Ground Systems at Kennedy Space Center, said at a press conference Thursday.
Aside from the immediate need to repair and test the seals, there are a few other major issues affecting NASA’s ability to get Artemis I off the ground this month. The largest is a system on the rocket called the Flight Termination System, which allows the rocket to be destroyed if something goes wrong during launch.
This is a critical safety system when dealing with large rockets or missiles, and for very obvious reasons, it must work during launch. The Space Force is responsible for the launch of the Eastern Range, where NASA is trying to launch a rocket. This requires verifying that the batteries in the flight termination system are in working order during launch, which can only be done in the vehicle assembly building four miles (and several hours) from the launchpad.
NASA already received an extension on the system’s certification, allowing them a little breathing room during their earlier launch attempts, but that exemption has now expired and they must apply for a new extension. Ultimately, it’s up to the Space Force to make the call on whether the launch is expected to proceed safely without going back into the VAB.
Then there’s everything going on in space. Now that NASA has missed the late August/early September launch windows, SLS will have to contend with other mission schedules. The agency chose the 23rd and 27th to avoid conflicts with NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) mission, which is scheduled to slam into the asteroid on September 26. A crew is also scheduled to fly to the ISS in early October. If Artemis I misses these next opportunities to launch, either due to delays in repairs or having to return to VAB for a checkup, the next opportunity to launch could be in October.