The launch of Artemis I, NASA’s historic next mission to the moon, has been pushed back to March 2022 at the earliest.
Engineers at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida are blaming the delay on a malfunctioning engine flight controller on one of the space launch system (SLS) core stage engines. Each of the controllers acts as a kind of “brain” that communicates with SLS to precisely control the engine and provide diagnostic data.
SLS, the world’s most powerful rocket, is designed to send Orion, astronauts, and supplies to the moon in a single mission.
During launch, the core stage along with two SLS solid rocket boosters, will provide more than 8 million pounds of thrust to blast the Orion capsule into space, eventually orbiting the moon and returning Orion to Earth.
Currently, SLS and Orion are going through an integrated testing process inside the Kennedy Space Center’s Vehicle Assembly Building. The entire spaceship is being prepared to be loaded on to a massive crawler-transporter vehicle for a slow, four-mile journey to Launch Pad 39B, where Artemis I will undergo a “wet dress rehearsal” to demonstrate SLS’s ability to be loaded and unloaded with rocket fuel.
In a blog post last week, NASA said engineers discovered the engine flight controller problem during a core stage power test, after Orion was first stacked atop the SLS.
Each engine flight controller includes two channels—one as a backup if needed during launch. During the recent testing, troubleshooters pinpointed the problem with channel B of the controller on engine four, which failed to power up consistently, NASA said.
Previously, all four of Artemis I’s RS-25 engines and engine flight controllers performed fine during preliminary integrated testing. They also passed muster earlier this year during a “hot fire” ignition test of the rocket at NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Mississippi. RS-25 engines are the same type as those used in NASA’s retired Space Shuttle fleet.
‘Reviewing Launch Opportunities’
While investigating what may be the root cause of the issue, NASA said it’s now updating Artemis I’s schedule to include replacing the engine controller while “reviewing launch opportunities in March and April.”
Previously, NASA had estimated that the earliest window of opportunity for launch would be between February 12 and 27. Other possible launch windows were March 12 to 27 and April 8 to 23.
Under the Artemis program, NASA plans to send the first woman and the first person of color to the surface of the moon. Eventually, missions call for establishing long-term lunar exploration in preparation for missions to Mars.
NASA said in November the first crewed Artemis mission won’t launch in 2025 at the earliest.
Artemis I stands 322 feet high, which is taller than the Statue of Liberty. It weighs 5.75 million pounds and can generate 8.8 million pounds of maximum thrust—15 percent more thrust than the Saturn V rocket, which was used during the Apollo missions of the 1960s and ’70s.