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NASA appears to be in full “send it” mode for the Artemis I mission

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Enlarge / Storm clouds threaten the Space Launch System rocket earlier this year.

Trevor Mahlman

On Friday afternoon, senior NASA officials joined a teleconference to speak with reporters about the current plan to launch the Artemis I mission from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. This will be the third attempt to blast off the massive Space Launch System rocket and propel the Orion spacecraft into lunar orbit for an uncrewed test flight of about 40 days before returning to Earth.

The rocket is ready, officials said. During fueling tests and launch attempts, NASA has been plagued by hydrogen propellant leaks, as the tiny molecule is unwieldy and constraining in very cold temperatures. However, following a longer-than-expected but ultimately successful propellant load test on Wednesday, NASA engineers expressed confidence in their revamped fueling procedures.

NASA also reached an agreement with US Space Force officials to extend the battery life of the rocket’s onboard flight termination system, leaving only weather as a potential limitation for a Launch attempt planned for Tuesday, September 27 at 11:37 am EST (15:37 UTC). The problem is that the weather now poses a significant threat to the schedule due to a tropical depression likely heading toward Florida in the next few days. there are at 80 percent probability of unacceptable weather during the launch window.

To roll or not to roll

Despite the grim forecast, NASA is pressing on.

“Our Plan A is to stay the course and take off on the 27th,” said Mike Bolger, manager of NASA’s Exploration Ground Systems Program at the Kennedy Space Center. “We also realize that we really need to pay attention and come up with a plan B.”

Bolger explained that NASA’s backup plan involved rolling the rocket and spacecraft back into the large Vehicle Assembly Building a few miles from the launch pad, where it would be protected from the elements. Preparing the rocket and driving it back would take about three days, he said. NASA expects to wait a day, until Saturday, to make a final decision. NASA officials will meet again Friday night to consider the weather.

These comments were reasonable, and it is prudent for NASA to ensure that it has the best available data on Tropical Depression Nine, which recently developed a center of circulation. As a result of this, forecasts should improve over the next day or two.

This is a delicate balance for NASA: waiting long enough to get the best forecast, but also allowing enough time to push back the rocket and release space center employees before the worst of the storm hits. According to the National Hurricane Center on Friday afternoon, the earliest “reasonable arrival time” for tropical-storm-force winds is around noon Tuesday, so waiting until Saturday morning would shorten that.

off the rails

However, after Bolger’s comments, the conference call began to go off the rails a bit. It became clear that NASA officials were not only waiting for the forecast data, but are reluctant to roll the SLS rocket back into its hangar. SLS chief engineer John Blevins said he wouldn’t be willing to roll the rocket back to its hangar even if the space center were hit by a tropical storm, which has fewer winds than a hurricane but still packs a significant punch.

“If we do experience a true hurricane, it would be my recommendation that we consider backing off,” Blevins said. “Usually the footprint of those things isn’t that wide, you know, for those high winds.”

Based on NASA’s risk analyses, Blevins said he believed the SLS rocket and Orion spacecraft could withstand winds of up to 74.1 knots (85 mph) at 60 feet from the ground. The main risk is wind loads on the vehicle, but he acknowledged there would be concerns about “things that could be moving in a storm like that.” This is a somewhat curious gamble from a space agency that is obsessively concerned about “foreign object debris” with its space hardware.

Enlarge / European model forecast at 12z for maximum wind gusts through Wednesday 28th September.

bell of time

So what’s the advantage of risking the rocket and spacecraft, which were developed at a cost of more than $30 billion, in a tropical system? By waiting out the weather, NASA is trying to preserve the opportunity to launch on September 27 or October 2. Otherwise, you’ll need to head back to the hangar anyway.

Doing so would likely push the next launch attempt to the second half of November. “Some limited life elements would come up in that case,” Blevins said. This seemed to be an admission that for NASA, time is ticking on a rocket that has been fully stacked for launch for nearly a year and has critical parts that cannot be repaired in that configuration. In short, NASA officials would very much like to get off the platform as soon as possible.

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