It will be the third time NASA has attempted to send the Orion crew capsule, unmanned, into orbit around the Moon as part of a campaign known as the Artemis program to return astronauts to the lunar surface. Two previous launch attempts were postponed due to mechanical problems.
Jim Free, NASA’s associate administrator for exploration systems development, told reporters that wind speeds on the pad as Hurricane Nicole battered the Florida coast on Thursday did not exceed the limits the rocket was designed for, and while there was minor damage, such as pieces of caulk that serve as a sealant loosening, none of it would force NASA to delayed again.
“We’re designing it to be out there,” he said. “And if we didn’t design it to be out there in rough weather, we picked the wrong launch point and we should have designed the vehicle better.”
NASA has suffered all kinds of setbacks while trying to get the SLS rocket off the ground, adding to the long history of a program born a decade ago. Launch attempts in August and September were marred by faulty engine sensor readings and persistent hydrogen fuel leaks. Then, when NASA officials said they were confident they had finally worked out all the problems, they were forced to drop the rocket back into the assembly building as Hurricane Ian approached the Florida peninsula in September.
They returned the rocket to its pad at the Kennedy Space Center last week, saying they did not believe the storm that became Hurricane Nicole would materialize into a storm that could threaten the vehicle, which NASA officials said is designed to withstands 85 mph wind gusts. As the storm grew stronger and closer, NASA leaders decided to keep the SLS on the pad — a decision forecasters have criticized.
“We took very seriously the decision to keep Orion and SLS at the launch site, looking at the data in front of us and making the best decision possible with high uncertainty in the weather forecast four days out,” NASA said in a statement Thursday. “With the unexpected change in the forecast, the return to the Vehicle Assembly Building was deemed too dangerous in the strong winds, and the team decided that the launch site was the safest place for the rocket to ride out the storm.”
In a statement Friday, AccuWeather criticized that decision, saying its forecasters had “warned of a 60 percent chance that wind gusts could reach 85 mph or greater near the Kennedy Space Center.”
The decision to keep the rocket on the pad “raises serious questions about NASA’s procedures for weather risk mitigation and preparation based on available forecasts, especially over the weekend, given that several days’ notice is required to safely move the rocket back in the VAB”. said Jonathan Porter, AccuWeather’s chief meteorologist.
Free said that by the time it was clear the storm could indeed threaten the Space Coast, it was too late to turn it around, a process that can take half a day and add more wear and tear to the vehicle, especially in high winds.
“Obviously we wouldn’t want to stay out there,” he said. “The best place for the vehicle in these species [conditions] it is the VAB. But we couldn’t get back to the VAB and be safe.”
He added that if the agency had known last week that the storm would become a hurricane, “we probably would have stayed at the VAB. I think it’s safe to say.”
If the Artemis I mission successfully sends Orion safely to the moon and back, NASA plans to follow it up with Artemis II, a manned lunar orbit flight. That flight is now scheduled for 2024, with a human not landing on the surface until 2025.
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