NASA’s daring Artemis 1 ‘Red Crew’ saved the moon launch
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — Not all space heroes wear space suits. Sometimes they wear protective caps.
NASA’s $4.1 billion Space Launch System (SLS) rocket was waiting on Launch Pad 39B here at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Tuesday (Nov. 15) before launch when sensors detected another fuel leak. Leaks like these have been the bane of this rocket’s existence during previous launch attempts, and when another leak appeared during this countdown, it seemed to many that we would be witnessing another cleanup launch – or worse, a return to the vehicle assembly building for repairs.
That didn’t happen, though, as the spectacle in the Florida sky showed on Wednesday morning (November 16). As the world watched to see if this fuel leak could be fixed, Artemis 1 Mission managers made a risky decision: They would send a “Red Crew,” a specialized team of technicians, to what engineers call “deck zero” in the rocket’s propellant base to try to stop the liquid hydrogen leak.
Fortunately, the Red Crew was successful.
Live updates: NASA’s Artemis 1 mission to the moon
The unsung heroes were able to perform a daring repair, and just a few hours later Artemis 1 was on its way to orbit around month.
Trent Annis, one of the members of the Red Crew, said that although it was scary to be under the rocket with fuel, his team remained focused on the job at hand.
“I would say we were very focused on what was going on up there,” Annis told NASA TV after the launch. “Just to make sure we know what’s going on. Because the rocket is, you know, it’s alive, it’s screeching, it’s making noise, it’s – it’s pretty scary. So on deck zero, my heart was racing. My nerves were going, but yeah, we showed up today.”
Annis and two other crew members, Billy Cairns and Chad Garrett, were sent to the mobile launch pad at the base of the SLS to tighten “packing nuts,” hardware that helps create a tight seal on the make-up valves through which liquid hydrogen is pumped into the core of the Artemis 1 lunar rocket after the main refueling procedure. Because hydrogen is such a small molecule, it manages to find its way out of even the tightest of seals, meaning NASA must continue to refill hydrogen tanks during the launch countdown even after the main fueling procedures are complete.
As the Artemis 1 launch window ticks away on Tuesday evening (November 15), Cairns, Garrett and Annis arrived at the mobile launch pad (opens in new tab) beneath the highly dangerous SLS vehicle at 22:12 EST (03:12 GMT Nov 16) to stop the leak – and fast – or risk losing this launch opportunity. Once on the platform, the crew discovered that the packing nuts were “visibly loose,” according to a statement by launch commentator Derrol Nail on the NASA TV media channel.
Fortunately, with nerves seemingly made of steel, the Red Crew performed admirably, tightening the nuts and allowing the Artemis 1 launch countdown to continue.
“You know, I still can’t believe it. Like I said, it’s really amazing,” Annis said during an interview after the launch.
“We had a lot of people here helping us, a lot of teams, the fire room,” Annis said. “I’m sure it was hectic. And you know, NASA, Boeing, all the other companies did a great job. We’re glad to be a part of it.” As evidence of how rare the dangerous procedure was, NASA TV commentators interviewing the Red Crew added that Cairns said he had served on the crew for 37 years and had never before been called out for repairs on a fully fueled rocket before last night’s daring excursion .
The Artemis 1 mission is now safely on its 25-day mission through deep space to the Moon, where it will pave the way for future crewed missions. The Orion spacecraft it will arrive at the moon on Monday (November 21) before spending a few more days positioning itself in lunar orbit.
The mission will end on December 11 when Orion re-enters Earth’s atmosphere at 25,000 mph (40,233 km/h) and experience temperatures of up to 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit (2,760 Celsius) before plunging into the Pacific Ocean — hopefully no Red Crew required.
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