NASA lead team the Artemis program of lunar missions really wants to continue its maiden spaceflight, which was scheduled for tomorrow morning. But with Hurricane Ian strengthening as it heads for the Florida launch pad, it’s time to move the Space Launch System’s massive rocket to safety.
The space agency will return the rocket to the Vehicle Assembly Building to await another launch opportunity, but that could mean a delay of several weeks. The team has yet to commit to a date for a retry, though a backup window once scheduled for October 2 now looks doomed. “A decision on whether to return to pad for launch will be made once the storm has passed and crews will conduct post-storm inspections,” Tiffany Fairley, NASA spokeswoman at Kennedy Space Center, wrote in an email. at WIRED.
After a series of delays this summer, the Artemis team hoped they could finally launch the unmanned moon rocket of Kennedy in East Florida. But concerns have arisen over wind damage to the spacecraft and risks to space center personnel. Before the weekend, NASA weather workers mapped the path of Ian, which at the time was a tropical cyclone that appeared to be gaining strength and headed toward Florida on launch day. The rocket can only tolerate sustained winds of up to 74 knots while on the launch pad, Mike Folger, Kennedy’s Exploration Ground Systems program manager, said at a Sept. 23 press conference. If these weather forecasts were accurate, the storm would soon become a hurricane and winds exceeding this speed would hit Florida’s space coast.
NASA had to consider weather criteria not only to launch the rocket, but also to get it to safety, according to an article on NASA’s Artemis Blog. Since the trip takes up to 12 hours and the rocket can only withstand winds of up to 40 knots on the robot that transports it to and from the assembly building, the Artemis team had to make the call Monday morning to get the SLS to safety. by Tuesday evening.
This would have been NASA’s third launch attempt. A first try August 29 has been cleaned due to a liquid hydrogen leak discovered with the third RS-25 engine. (The rocket withstood a smaller storm then, with towers striking lightning nearby, but not the rocket itself.) A second shot September 3 has also been canceled due to a hydrogen leak – this time it was bigger. (Similar issues have also been spotted in April and in June when the team conducted “wet rehearsal” tests of the refueling and countdown procedures.)
The SLS uses supercooled liquid hydrogen down to -423 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s a light, efficient and powerful rocket booster, but it comes with its own set of challenges. “Cryogenics is a very difficult type of propellant to handle,” Brad McCain, vice president of Jacobs Space Operations Group, NASA’s ground exploration systems prime contractor, said at the press conference for the September 23. He noted that leaks of liquid hydrogen appeared frequently. during the 135 space shuttle launches. With the SLS, he said, a “softer, smoother loading approach,” using less pressure to push the propellant through the lines to the midstage rocket, worked during a refueling test on September 21.