NASA SLS launches from Launch Complex 39B

NASA’s Red Team: Meet the Crew that Saved Artemis I’s Third Launch Attempt

NASA successfully launched their new Space Launch System rocket on November 16th marking the beginning of a new era of space exploration with the Artemis program.

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Heather D.

Heather D.

Wed Nov 23 2022Written by Heather D.

* Note: All times are in US Eastern (EST)

The much-anticipated launch of NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) was set to signify the beginning of NASA’s next generation of lunar exploration half a century after NASA bid farewell to the Apollo program and its powerful Saturn V rocket. Artemis I’s official launch date was set for August 29th, 2022, just five years after US President Donald Trump signed Space Policy Directive 1, providing NASA and its contractors the resources necessary to return humans to the moon. 

But the morning of August 29th ended in disappointment following a nerve-wracking night filled with weather-related tanking holds, apparent cracks in the tank that were really just lines of frost, and ultimately a scrubbed launch due to a sensor reporting a critical bleed in Engine 3. Five days later, Artemis I Launch Director Charlie Blackwell-Thompson called off the second launch attempt mid-fueling after launch controllers detected a hydrogen leak within the tail service mast umbilical used for fueling the world’s most powerful rocket with propellant. 

Attempts at repairing SLS on pad 39B began quickly after the two slipped launch attempts, but were halted when it became apparent that a tropical depression in the Caribbean would form into a hurricane that could compromise the rocket’s hardware and stability from wind gusts over 80 knots and debris blowing haphazardly along Space Coast. Artemis I’s debut was put on hold and SLS Block 1 and its Mobile Launch Platform returned to the VAB before Hurricane Ian hit Florida’s shores. 

It wouldn’t be until 11 weeks after the first Artemis I launch attempt that SLS would successfully send its unmanned Orion capsule through Earth’s atmosphere and into lunar orbit. The hours leading up to the November 16th launch window seemed unusually smooth during NASA’s live coverage of Artemis I tanking operations. The skies were clear and tanking operations seemed to be going flawlessly, with hydrogen sensors reporting hydrogen bleed levels well under safety limits. That is, until about T-3:16:00 when NASA launch commentator Derrol Nail mentioned that an “intermittent leak” on a liquid hydrogen valve located on the side of the Mobile Launcher had caught the launch team’s attention. 

Initial readings suggested low enough hydrogen levels to not warrant any interventions, but as the time went on and leaked hydrogen levels increased, Director Blackwell-Thompson, upon the advice of launch control team, called for the mobilization of the Red Crew to attempt to fix a leaking valve just feet away from a fully loaded monster of a rocket designed for deep space exploration.

Roughly forty minutes after Derrol first reported the hydrogen leak, a team of two technicians and a safety representative arrived at Pad 39B. Emergency services and pad rescue teams were notified of the Red Crew’s potentially hazardous plan to fix the leak and were put on standby in case of emergency. Members of the Red Crew were equipped with their own sensors measuring oxygen and hydrogen concentrations within their workspace on the Mobile Launch Platform to ensure the crew had adequate oxygen to breathe during operations. 

Space enthusiasts at Kennedy Space Center, along Space Coast, and around the world anxiously watched, listened, and waited as cryogenic engineering technicians Billy Cairns and Trent Annis, and safety engineer Chad Garrett crossed the pad, just feet away from an RS-25 engine in view on NASA’s live video feed, and then out of sight to complete their work in compartment AB 12 of the Mobile Launch Pad. 

According to NASA, Red Crew technicians are trained for hazardous operations during cryogenic loading when remote interventions are not possible. In fact, a similar scenario occurred during fuel tanking for the historic Apollo 11 mission that resulted in humanity’s first steps on the moon; a Red Crew hastily worked to resolve a hydrogen valve leak while Mission Commander Neil Armstrong, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, and Michael Collins boarded the capsule in preparation for launch (Read an incredible account from one of the Apollo 11 fueling crew about resolving the hydrogen valve leak here.

The operation was initially expected to take just fifteen minutes, but the Red Crew wouldn’t depart 39B and the surrounding “blast zone” until roughly an hour after arriving. Once hydrogen sensors registered below launch violation levels, the Red Crew’s operation was deemed a success and the launch crew resumed liquid hydrogen fast-fill operations. After an unrelated range violation extended the planned thirty-minute hold time to complete a minor repair, the Mission Management team and Launch Director polled “go” for launch at 1:37 AM, beginning the L-10:00 launch clock roughly 30 minutes after launch window opening at 1:04 AM.