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NASA gambled with its moon rocket. It may pay off

The NASA moon rocket stands on Pad 39B before a launch attempt for the Artemis 1 mission to orbit the moon at the Kennedy Space Center on Sept. 2, 2022, in Cape Canaveral, Fla. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson, File)

NASA gambled with its multi-billion dollar moon rocket and it may have paid off for the U.S. space agency. With Hurricane Nicole hitting Florida just days before the massive rocket was set to launch, the agency made the call to leave the rocket perched atop its launch pad to brave the storm.

Now that crews have been able to safely assess the state of the 212-foot-tall Space Launch System (SLS) and its Orion crew capsule, they say it’s full steam ahead for the first phase of NASA’s Artemis mission, with an expected launch next week with liftoff set for 1:04 a.m. EST on Wednesday morning.

“There’s nothing preventing us from getting to a launch attempt on Nov. 16,” Jim Free, NASA’s associate administrator for exploration systems development said during a media briefing on Friday. 

NASA has spent billions building the most powerful rocket in the world as part of its Artemis lunar program, which aims to return astronauts to the lunar soil in 2025. But the rocket has been plagued by delays: in construction, in testing and now in the launch. 

The rocket first rolled to its launch pad at Kennedy Space Center’s historic Pad 39B in mid-August as part of a launch dress rehearsal, but a hydrogen leak forced it to return to the vehicle assembly building (VAB).

A few weeks later, it returned to the pad and another leak was detected during fueling. This time, the team opted to make repairs on site. When NASA was ready to try again, another issue scrubbed the launch. And then Hurricane Ian rolled in, sending the rocket back into the VAB. 

As Hurricane Nicole headed for Florida this week, NASA decided to gamble and leave its mega moon rocket exposed to the elements. 

According to Free, wind measurements were taken at several different levels on the SLS during the storm, and none of the measurements exceeded certification limits. That means that even though the rocket was exposed to the brunt force of Hurricane Nicole, all of the data indicates that the rocket was able to withstand it just fine. 

Free admitted that it wasn’t ideal leaving the rocket on the pad, but the agency didn’t see any other choice. He said that if the agency had known the storm would eventually become a hurricane, the rocket would have never rolled out on Nov. 4. 

Forecasts at that time, however, only predicted a 30 percent chance of it becoming a named storm — either a tropical storm or hurricane — with estimated wind gusts no higher than 74 km per hour, which were within the rocket’s limits. 

So the call was made to stay on the launch pad. 

“From our perspective we were within our certification and [ultimately] stayed within our certification limits, with the winds that we saw from the hurricane,” Free said. “We obviously would not have wanted to stay out there, but we could not make it back to the VAB and be safe.” 

Free said that sensors were installed at multiple levels on the mobile launcher to record wind data. There was minor damage reported, but the crews are working over the weekend to fix. In the meantime, the team is going to power up the vehicle today to continue its assessments. 

Why risk a multi-billion rocket that’s already years behind schedule and billions over budget?

Because it was the safest thing to do, says Jim Free. Hurricane Nicole had a wide wind field and in order to transport the rocket safely back to its garage within the VAB, NASA would have had to make the decision on Sunday, just days after rolling its rocket to the pad — a feat which is risky on a normal day, as the rocket is only capable of rolling to and from the launch pad so many times before launch. That’s because the act of moving a rocket as massive as the SLS can put stress on the vehicle, so NASA limits the number of times it can be moved. 

“We took the decision to keep Orion and SLS at the launch pad very seriously, reviewing the data in front of us and making the best decision possible with high uncertainty in predicting the weather four days out,” Free said.

 “With the unexpected change to the forecast, returning to the Vehicle Assembly Building was deemed to be too risky in high winds, and the team decided the launch pad was the safest place for the rocket to weather the storm.”

The agency’s bet has seemed to pay off as Free says the team is proceeding to a launch on Nov. 16. He said the 19th and the 25th would be available as backup dates if needed. 

The flight is a crucial test of the SLS and Orion systems and will pave the way for future missions to carry astronauts around the moon and ultimately to the lunar surface — something that hasn’t been done since 1972. As part of its Artemis 1 mission, the SLS will launch an Orion capsule on a multi-week journey around the moon. That is, if it can get off the ground. 

Tags Artemis rocket Moon mission nasa
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