On Friday afternoon, senior NASA officials joined a conference call 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 launch the massive Space Launch System rocket from Earth and push the Orion spacecraft into lunar orbit on an uncrewed test flight for about 40 days before returning to Earth.
Officials said the missile was ready. During refueling tests and launch attempts, NASA spoiled hydrogen fuel leaks, as the small molecule is difficult to handle and bound in frigid temperatures. However, after a longer-than-expected, but ultimately successful, fuel loading test on Wednesday, NASA engineers expressed confidence in the revamped refueling procedures.
NASA also reached an agreement with US Space Force officials to extend the battery life of the rocket’s flight termination system. Only that weather was left as a potential hindrance to a launch attempt planned for Tuesday, September 27 at 11:37 a.m. EDT (15:37 UTC). The problem is that the weather is now a huge threat to the schedule due to a tropical depression that is likely to move towards Florida in the coming days. There is an 80 percent chance that unacceptable weather will occur during the launch window.
To roll or not to roll
Despite the bleak outlook, NASA is moving forward.
“Our plan (a) is to continue on the path and launch on day 27,” said Mike Bolger, director of the NASA Earth Exploration Systems Program at the Kennedy Space Center. “We also realize that we really need to pay attention and think about Plan B.”
Bolger explained that NASA’s backup plan included bringing the rocket and spacecraft back inside the large vehicle assembly building a few miles from the launch pad, where it would be protected from the elements. He said it would take about three days to prepare the missile and roll it back. NASA is hoping to wait a day, until Saturday, to make a final decision. NASA officials will meet again Friday evening to consider the weather.
These comments were reasonable, and NASA is wise to ensure it has the best data available on Tropical Depression Nine, which recently developed a spinning core. As a result, the outlook should improve over the next day or two.
That’s a delicate balance for NASA – waiting long enough for the best forecast, but also leaving enough time to roll back the rocket as well as freeing personnel from the space center before the worst of the storm arrives. According to the National Hurricane Center on Friday afternoon, the closest “reasonable arrival time” for tropical storm strength winds is around midday Tuesday, so waiting until Saturday morning will be close.
Off the track
But after Bolger’s comments, the conference call began to get somewhat off track. It became clear that NASA officials were not only waiting for the prediction data, but were reluctant to return the SLS rocket to its hangar. SLS chief engineer John Blevins noted that he wouldn’t be tempted to roll the rocket into its hangar even if the space center were hit by a tropical storm, which winds less than a hurricane but still packs a big punch.
“If we had a real hurricane, my advice would be to consider stepping back,” Blevins said. “Normally, the effects of these things are not as extensive, you know, for those high winds.”
Based on NASA’s risk analyzes, Blevins said he believes the SLS rocket and Orion spacecraft can withstand winds of up to 74.1 knots (85 miles per hour) at a level of 60 feet off Earth. The primary risk is the wind loads on the car, but he acknowledged there would be concerns about “things that might move in a storm like this.” This is a somewhat intriguing risky situation from the space agency, which is very concerned about “foreign object debris” with its spacecraft.
So what’s the upside to risking rockets and a spacecraft, developed at a cost of more than $30 billion, in a tropical system? By waiting for the weather, NASA is seeking to reserve the chance of a launch on September 27 or October 2. Failing that, you’ll need to go back to the fold regardless.
Doing so will likely push the next launch attempt into the second half of November. “Some of the finite-lived elements will show up in this case,” Blevins said. This seems to be an admission that for NASA, the clock is ticking on a rocket that’s been fully stacked for launch for nearly a year now, and which has critical, unmaintainable parts in this configuration. In short, NASA officials would very much like to get off the platform as quickly as possible.