Artemis I engine controller issue may delay launch weeks, not months

News 6 exclusive interview with Artemis senior vehicle operations manager

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. – NASA continues “reviewing launch opportunities” in March and April for the Artemis I moon rocket after an engine controller failed a communications test. Senior Vehicle Operations Manager Cliff Lanham said he’ll know more by the end of the week but any delay shouldn’t take months.

“One of the engine controllers on Engine 4 had a communication issue,” Lanham said. “They’ve done some troubleshooting where it wouldn’t power up consistently is the best way to put it. So we decided we’re going to change that out to be fully redundant. Because each controller for the engine has two sides, one of which has to work. But you want to be redundant from the get-go.”

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Lanham is in charge of stacking, testing and readying the Artemis I moon rocket, half a century after the first.

“I’m the flow director which means I’m in charge of operations for assembling the vehicle, integrating the rocket, testing the rocket, and getting it ready for launch,” Lanham said.

It’s been a bumpy ride, especially last week.

The towering Space Launch System with the Orion crew capsule stacked on was supposed to roll out to Launch Pad 39B this month, and the wet dress rehearsal --fueling the rocket and counting down to liftoff -- was supposed to happen next month, until the engine controller communication issue was discovered.

Artemis I, stacked in the Vehicle Assembly Building at Kennedy Space Center. (Copyright 2020 by WKMG ClickOrlando - All rights reserved.)

“It’s exciting, it’s nerve-racking, it’s a challenge every day, problem every day,” Lanham said. “We fight our way through it. I’ve got a tremendous team that supports me. We come out here every day, we have a schedule, we run into problems, we solve the problems. We figure out what we can do while we’re solving those problems to keep everything moving forward. There’s always something. There’s a lot of ground systems, you’ve got the rocket full of systems that have to work. You’ve got electronics, pneumatics, cryo-systems, you got all kinds of systems that have to work together and bring all this together.”

Lanham arrives every day at 7:30 a.m. at the Vehicle Assembly Building at the Kennedy Space Center and doesn’t go home until 6 p.m., overseeing the final testing.

“Right now we’re finishing up what we call our integrated test and check out,” Lanham said. “We just finished a major communications test, where the vehicle and Orion had to communicate with the Deep Space Network, our near-space communication, and also the ground, between the different centers, JSC (Johnson Space Center), and Kennedy. So we just finished that. Today we’re in the middle of right now a countdown sequencing test, where the vehicle is powered, where they’re running the countdown down to T-30 seconds. So that’s another big test.”

Lanham said when there are problems, engineers will call in the subcontractors.

“Our reaction is what’s the problem, what’s it look like, what are the symptoms?” Lanham said. “Then the team goes off and we pull in the OEMs, which are the original equipment manufacturers. So you’re pulling in your Boeing, your Aerojet Rocketdyne, you’re pulling in your Northrop Grumman. Then they come back with recommendations. Maybe retest, repair, replace the parts, whatever the case may be. A lot of times that doesn’t happen instantaneously as you might imagine, but it’s relatively fast to keep us moving towards that big launch day.”

Lanham said there is no rule book or instruction manual -- it’s being written as the rocket is being built.

“It’s very complicated from the standpoint there’s technology here that we’re testing out,” Lanham said. “We have a test team that writes procedures that takes into account everything when they’re running their tests. Believe it or not, some of it is literally bolting hardware together. It’s complicated because there is so much of it. But you’ve got to break it down into its components. Work through each system. We don’t work on one thing at a time. We’re working down on the boosters, core stages, working up on the Orion.”

The launch of the Artemis I mission is currently set for no earlier than March 2022.

About the Author:

Erik von Ancken anchors and reports for WKMG-TV News 6 (CBS) in Orlando and is a two-time Emmy award-winning journalist in the prestigious and coveted "On-Camera Talent" categories for both anchoring and reporting. Erik joined the News 6 News Team in 2003 days after the tragic loss of space shuttle Columbia.