NASA targets Saturday launch of new moon rocket after fixes

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida — NASA was aiming for a Saturday launch of its new moon rocket, after fixing fuel leaks and bypassing a bad motor sensor that thwarted the first try.

The maiden flight of the 322ft (98m) rocket – the most powerful NASA has ever built – was delayed late into the countdown on Monday. Kennedy Space Center’s clocks started ticking again as managers expressed confidence in their plan and forecasters gave favorable weather ratings.

Atop the rocket is a crew capsule with three test dummies that will fly around the moon and back in six weeks – NASA’s first such attempt since the Apollo program 50 years ago. NASA wants to wring out the spacecraft before strapping down astronauts on the next flight scheduled in two years.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said he was more confident for this second launch attempt, given everything engineers learned from the first attempt.

The same goes for astronaut Jessica Meir, who is on NASA’s shortlist for one of the first lunar crews.

“We are all excited for this to happen, but the most important thing is that we leave when we are ready and do it right, because the next missions will have humans on board. Maybe me, maybe my friends,” Meir told The Associated Press on Friday.

Engineers in charge of the Space Launch System rocket insisted on Thursday evening that the rocket’s four main engines were fine and that a faulty temperature sensor caused one of them to appear as if it was too hot hot Monday. Engines must match minus-420 degrees Fahrenheit (minus-250 degrees Celsius) liquid hydrogen on takeoff or they could be damaged and shut down in flight.

“We’ve convinced ourselves beyond a shadow of a doubt that we have good quality liquid hydrogen going through the engines,” said John Honeycutt, the rocket’s program manager.

Once refueling begins on Saturday morning, the launch team will perform another engine test – this time earlier in the countdown. Even if this suspicious sensor indicates that an engine is too hot, other sensors can be used to make sure everything is working properly and to stop the countdown if something goes wrong, Honeycutt told reporters.

NASA was unable to perform this type of engine test during dress rehearsals earlier this year due to a fuel leak. More fuel leaks popped up on Monday; technicians found loose connections and tightened them.

The engine temperature situation adds to the risk of the flight, as does another issue that arose on Monday: cracks in the rocket’s insulating foam. If pieces of foam break off during takeoff, they could hit the strap boosters and damage them. Engineers consider the likelihood of this happening to be low and have accepted these slight additional risks.

“It is an extremely complicated machine and system. Millions of pieces,” NASA chief Nelson told the AP. “There are indeed risks. But are these risks acceptable? I leave that to the experts. My role is to remind them that you are not taking any risk that is not an acceptable risk.

The $4.1 billion test flight is NASA’s first step to sending astronauts around the moon in 2024 and landing them on the surface in 2025. Astronauts last walked on the moon in 1972.

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The Associated Press Health and Science Department is supported by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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