Fuel leaks delay launch of NASA's Artemis lunar rocket

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Fuel leaks and a possible crack discovered during final liftoff preparations delayed the launch of NASA’s mighty new moon rocket Monday morning on its shakedown flight with three test dummies aboard.

As precious minutes ticked away, NASA repeatedly stopped and started the fuelling of the Space Launch System rocket with nearly 1 million gallons of super-cold hydrogen and oxygen because of a leak. The fuelling already was running nearly an hour late because of thunderstorms off Florida’s Kennedy Space Center.

The leak appeared in the same place that saw seepage during a dress rehearsal in the spring.

Then a second apparent leak in a valve turned up, officials said.

Later in the morning, a crack or some other defect was spotted on the core stage – the big orange fuel tank with four main engines on it – with frost appearing around the suspect area, NASA officials said. Engineers began studying the buildup.

The rocket was set to lift off on a mission to put a crew capsule into orbit around the moon. The mission represents a major milestone in America's quest to put astronauts back on the moon for the first time since the Apollo programme ended 50 years ago.

The next launch attempt would not be until Friday at the earliest.

The 98-metre rocket is the most powerful ever built by NASA, out-muscling even the Saturn V that took the Apollo astronauts to the moon.

No astronauts were inside the Artemis rocket's Orion capsule. Instead, three test dummies were aboard for the six-week mission, which was scheduled to end with the capsule's splashdown in the Pacific in October.

The launch will be the first flight in NASA’s 21st-century moon-exploration programme, named Artemis after Apollo’s mythological twin sister.

The problems seen Monday were reminiscent of NASA's space shuttle era, when hydrogen fuel leaks disrupted countdowns and delayed a string of launches back in 1990.

Launch director Charlie Blackwell-Thompson and her team also had to deal with a communication problem involving the Orion capsule.

Engineers scrambled to understand an 11-minute delay in the communication lines between Launch Control and Orion that cropped up late Sunday. Although the problem had cleared by Monday morning, NASA needed to know why it occurred before committing to a launch.

(FRANCE 24 with AP)