New leak erupts as NASA fuels lunar rocket for launch

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) — A new leak emerged as NASA fueled its new lunar rocket on Tuesday for a mid-night launch, the third attempt to place an empty capsule around the moon for the first time in 50 years.

In an attempt to tighten the leaking valve, the launch team rushed two technicians and a safety official to the pad – a so-called red team. The work was considered simple but dangerous and rescuers were on standby.

“It’s a dangerous operation within the hazardous area and the launch team will be watching its every move,” said NASA launch commentator Derrol Nail.

The first two attempts in late summer were plagued by fuel leaks, after which a few hurricanes caused further delays. While engineers never found the cause of the escaping hydrogen, they modified the fueling process to minimize leakage and expressed confidence that all lines in the 98-meter rocket would remain tight and intact.

NASA added an hour to the operation to account for slower refueling, essential to depressurize the fuel lines and keep the seals in place. It seemed to work, but towards the end of the six-hour operation at a new location, a hydrogen leak popped up. This particular leaky valve is on the launch pad, not the rocket, officials stressed, and is needed to replenish liquid hydrogen as it depletes from the core stage.

The rocket was being gassed with nearly 1 million gallons (3.7 million liters) of super-cold hydrogen and oxygen when the final leak occurred. The countdown continued while the repair work was underway.

NASA expected 15,000 Kennedy Space Center to jam for launch in the wee hours of Wednesday morning, with thousands more lining the beaches and roads outside the gates. The space agency had two hours to get the rocket off before shutting down until Saturday.

The debut of the Space Launch System rocket, known as SLS, had three test dummies but no astronauts in the crew pod on top, which NASA hoped to put into lunar orbit.

This first test flight was expected to last three weeks and end with a landing in the Pacific Ocean. NASA’s top priority for the $4.1 billion mission is to verify the capsule’s heat shield during reentry so four astronauts can strap in for the next moonshot in 2024. That would be followed by a two-person moon landing in 2025.

NASA last sent astronauts to the moon in December 1972, concluding the Apollo program.

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The Associated Press Department of Health and Science receives support from the Department of Science Education at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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