Despite the test launch of NASA’s new moon rocket being postponed on Monday morning, Innovation Minister François-Philippe Champagne said it was “still a good day for Canada.”
Champagne, who was in Florida for a two-day trip that included meetings with Canadian astronauts and NASA officials, got up at 1:30 a.m. to head to the launch pad in Cape Canaveral only to see the mission delayed.
“Obviously we all wanted to be there to witness history,” he told Canadian reporters in a teleconference from Orlando.
But Canada’s representation in the broader mission is more important, Champagne said. “If you look at the big picture, what really matters for Canadians and certainly young Canadians is that this time, we’re not watching it, we’re part of it.”
It’s been more than half a century since humans last visited the moon, and days or weeks of waiting for this Artemis test launch to proceed won’t make that big of a difference in the long term, he said. When the mission does continue, Canada will be “front and centre.”
Canada is contributing a new robotic arm, the Canadarm 3, to the Gateway space station that NASA eventually plans to put in orbit around the moon.
A Canadian astronaut is also expected to be on the first manned crew of the rocket, Artemis 2, expected to fly around the moon and back as soon as 2024.
The 98-metre-long rocket’s debut flight was scheduled to go ahead Monday morning with three test dummies aboard, but a last-minute cascade of problems culminated in unexplained engine trouble.
As precious minutes ticked away Monday morning, NASA repeatedly stopped and started the fuelling of the Space Launch System rocket because of a leak of highly explosive hydrogen, eventually succeeding in reducing the seepage to acceptable levels. The leak happened in the same place there was seepage during a dress rehearsal in the spring.
The fuelling was already running nearly an hour late because of thunderstorms off Florida’s Kennedy Space Center.
Then, NASA ran into new trouble when it was unable to properly chill one of the rocket’s four main engines, officials said. Engineers continued working to pinpoint the source of the problem after the launch postponement was announced.
“This is a very complicated machine, a very complicated system, and all those things have to work, and you don’t want to light the candle until it’s ready to go,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson.
Referring to launch delays, he said: “It’s just part of the space business and it’s part of, particularly, a test flight.”
Canadian astronaut David St-Jacques was watching.
“The little boy in me is disappointed. I wanted to see the excitement of a rocket launch, this great new rocket, the beginning of a new era of exploration,” he said. “But the sober engineer in me goes, ‘phew, glad that someone found that problem and saved us from a bigger problem.'”
St-Jacques said the Artemis program will reintroduce humans to the lunar environment but also ultimately prepare us for missions to Mars. It will create a higher level of confidence for more space exploration. Canada’s involvement is “huge for our nation,” he said.
He noted that past space exploration has produced widely-used technologies such as GPS, and Canada’s current research on space exploration, focused on health and food, will have other applications — for example, with remote medicine or in growing food in harsh Canadian environments.
The next launch attempt will not take place until Friday at the earliest and could be delayed until mid-September or later.
Champagne’s office said that it’s unlikely he’ll be able to attend for the next launch window.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published on Aug. 29, 2022.