NASA defends sending ‘Red Team’ to fix fuel leak on Artemis rocket

NASA on Wednesday defended its decision to send a “Red Team” of technicians into a potentially dangerous blast zone to fix a leak in the Artemis rocket fueling system while the rocket was nearly full of fuel just before launch.

Taking questions at a post-launch briefing were NASA Administrator Bill Nelson, Artemis Mission Manager Mike Sarafin, ground systems program manager Mike Bolger, Space Launch System program manager John Honeycutt of the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Orion capsule program manager Howard Hu and Emily Nelson, chief flight director at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.

Bolger was asked about the hydrogen fuel leak and the decision to send a “Red Team” of specially trained technicians to fix it by tightening nuts on a fuel valve. That decision meant working next to the almost fully fueled rocket, something the Red Team is trained to do.

Bolger said the team “recognized we had a leak and were able to get a camera on it although it wasn’t a great view. We could see some vapors. There were options where we wouldn’t have to send a Red Team out there … but the team … had actually really written a procedure on how they’d do that.”

“It was definitely a low moment when we first saw the leak,” Bolger said. “You all know we’ve struggled through some hydrogen leaks that we’ve had in the past but a really high moment when we recognized that we’d solved the problem.”

Bolger said, “It’s always a hard thing to do to send the Red Team out to the launch pad” and “none of us really thought that was an ideal response.

“You only do it when you feel you have to,” Bolger said, “but, in this case, I think the team felt that, really, our most likely case here was we just had some loose nuts on those valves. And so we sent the team out and they did a terrible job and we got that issue resolved.”

The briefing opened with mission manager Sarafin thanking the Marshall center in Huntsville for its contribution to the launch. “I want to thank John Honeycutt and the Space Launch System program for putting that … mission in play,” he said, “as well as (Center Director) Jody Singer at Marshall Space Flight Center and the Marshall team. They did an amazing job up to this point.”

Marshall is NASA’s primary center for developing propulsion systems, including the Saturn V rockets, Space Shuttle engines and boosters, and now the Artemis Space Launch System.

“It’s been a little over 12 years since I got to experience this,” Honeycutt said referring to the last shuttle launch, “and it’s awesome to be back in the business of doing it. We’ve laid the foundation for a program… the rocket performed outstandingly.”

Emily Nelson, chief flight director at the Johnson Space Center, was asked her reaction to the large number of women active in the launch program including Launch Director Charlie Blackwell-Thompson.

“I think my emotions are matched pretty well, not only by everybody at this table, but probably everybody who was watching whether they were working it or not,” Nelson said. “There was an enormous amount of pride, there was a great deal of awe, and that pride is not only in the individuals that we know and friends who have worked so hard over the number of years who have gotten this opportunity to contribute to this great mission, but also just the fact that we together have gotten to this place where we’re going back.”

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said he called former Texas US Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson after the launch to share his success with his former Senate colleague.

Nelson, then a senator from Florida, Bailey of Texas and US Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama – all states with big NASA centers – were key in pressing the Obama administration to develop SLS as a compromise after the president canceled its predecessor Constellation program as too expensive and problematic. Obama’s decision to kill Constellation cost more than 1,000 jobs in Huntsville alone, but many jobs returned with the Space Launch System.

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