Roll-out of Nasa's new moon rocket to launch pad delayed at least a month

Nasa did not give a revised launch date for its uncrewed Artemis 1 mission, but the delay would preclude a flight before April. PHOTO: AFP/NASA/MSFC

MIAMI (REUTERS) - The highly anticipated roll-out of Nasa's big new moon rocket to its launch pad in Florida for final tests before a first flight has been delayed by at least a month, until March at the earliest, the US space agency said on Wednesday (Feb 2).

Nasa, which late last year had targeted lift-off this month for its uncrewed Artemis 1 mission around the moon and back, declined to set a revised launch date, but the delay would preclude a flight before April.

At a briefing for reporters, Nasa executives said there were no specific, major difficulties slowing their schedule, but rather a higher-than-usual volume of technical hurdles to clear in preparing a large, complex rocket system for its very first launch.

"It's really what I would call a kind of punch list of a whole bunch of things that we absolutely need to finish up and then we'll be ready to roll the vehicle out," said Nasa deputy associate Nasa administrator Tom Whitmeyer.

Nasa officials said workforce and supply disruptions related to the recent Omicron-driven surge in Covid-19 infections were also factors in slowing down the work.

At stake is the combined fate of Nasa's heavy-lift Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and the Orion crew capsule it will send aloft for the Artemis programme, aimed at returning humans to the moon and eventually establishing a long-term lunar colony as a precursor to sending astronauts to Mars.

The US Apollo programme sent six astronauts to the lunar surface between 1969 and 1972, the only crewed spaceflights yet to achieve that feat.

In November, Nasa announced that it would aim to achieve the first crewed lunar landing of Artemis, named for the twin sister of Apollo in Greek mythology, as early as 2025.

But the space agency has several spaceflight stepping stones to meet before it gets there, starting with a successful maiden flight of the SLS and Orion, now in the final stages of pre-launch preparations.

Roll-out of the towering spacecraft, a key milestone marking the public's first glimpse of the newly assembled, 36-storey-tall rocket-and-capsule vehicle as it is moved, had recently been planned for mid-February.

Under the updated timeframe outlined on Wednesday, the SLS-Orion will be trundled out on a giant crawler-transporter in March - probably around the middle of the month - from its assembly building to a launch pad at Nasa's Kennedy Space Centre in Cape Canaveral, Florida.

Once there, it will take about two weeks for technicians to ready the launch vehicle for a "wet dress rehearsal" that includes fully loading the rocket's fuel tanks with propellant and running through a simulated countdown.

Afterwards, Nasa will roll the SLS-Orion stack back into the assembly building for a last round of checks before officially setting a new target lift-off date.

In a statement on Wednesday, Nasa said it was reviewing launch windows in April and May, but the timeline could slip further depending on the outcome of the dress rehearsal, space agency officials said.

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