CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — Not all space heroes wear spacesuits. Sometimes they wear helmets.
NASA’s $4.1 billion Space Launch System (SLS) rocket was waiting on Launch Pad 39B here at Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Tuesday, Nov. 15, before launch when sensors detected another fuel leak. Such leaks were the bane of this rocket’s existence in previous launch attempts, and when another leak occurred during this countdown, it seemed to many that we would be witnessing another clean launch – or worse, a return to the vehicle assembly building for repairs.
Yet that’s not what happened, as the spectacle in Florida skies early Wednesday morning (November 16) proved. As the world watched to see if this fuel leak could be fixed, Artemis 1 mission officials made a risky decision: They would send a “red crew,” a team of specialist technicians, to what engineers call the “zero bridge” at the base of the fueled rocket to try to stop the leak of liquid hydrogen.
Fortunately, the Red Crew succeeded.
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The unsung heroes pulled off the daring repair, and hours later Artemis 1 was on its way to orbit the moon.
Trent Annis, one of the Red Crew members, said that while it was terrifying to be under the fueled rocket, his team remained focused on the job at hand.
“I would say we were very focused on what was going on up there,” Annis told NASA TV after launch. “Just to make sure we knew what was going on. Because the rocket is, you know, it’s alive, it’s creaking, it’s making venting noises, it’s – it’s pretty scary. So on bridge zero, my heart was pounding. My nerves were going but yeah, we showed up today.”
Annis and the other two crew members, Billy Cairns and Chad Garrett, were sent to the mobile launch pad at SLS Base to tighten “packing nuts,” hardware that helps form a seal on the refueling valves through which hydrogen liquid was pumped into the core stage of the Artemis 1 lunar rocket after the main refueling procedure. Because hydrogen is such a small molecule, it manages to leak out of even the tightest seals, which means NASA must continue to replenish hydrogen reservoirs throughout the launch countdown, even after the launch. end of the main refueling procedures.
As the launch window for Artemis 1 draws to a close on Tuesday evening (November 15), Cairns, Garrett and Annis arrived at the mobile launch pad (opens in a new tab) under the highly dangerous SLS vehicle at 10:12 p.m. EST (03:12 GMT Nov. 16) to stop the leak — and quickly — or risk losing that launch opportunity. Once on the platform, the crew discovered that the packing nuts were “visibly loose,” according to a statement from launch commentator Derrol Nail on the NASA TV media channel.
Thankfully, with nerves seemingly made of steel, the Red Crew performed admirably, tightening the nuts and allowing the Artemis 1 launch countdown to resume.
“You know, I still can’t believe it. Like I said, it’s really amazing,” Annis said in the post-launch interview.
“We had a lot of people here to help us, a lot of crews, the fire station,” Annis said. “I’m sure it was hectic. And you know, NASA, Boeing, all the other companies did a great job. We’re happy to be a part of that.” In testimony to the rarity of the dangerous procedure, NASA television commentators interviewing the red crew added that Cairns said he had served on the crew for 37 years and had never been called before for a repair on a fully fueled rocket before last night. daring excursion.
The Artemis 1 mission is now safely on its 25-day mission through deep space to the moon, where it will pave the way for future crewed missions. The Orion spacecraft will reach the moon on Monday (November 21) before spending several more days positioning itself in lunar orbit.
The mission will end on December 11 when Orion re-enters Earth’s atmosphere at 25,000 mph (40,233 km/h) and experiences temperatures of up to 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit (2,760 Celsius) before crashing into the Pacific Ocean – hopefully with no Red Crew needed.
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