NASA moves ahead with ‘Plan A’ for lunar launch while watching weather

NASA moves ahead with ‘Plan A’ for lunar launch while watching weather

NASA's Space Launch System stands on the launch pad in Florida.  (NASA Photo / Ben Smegelsky)

NASA’s Space Launch System stands on the launch pad in Florida. (NASA Photo / Ben Smegelsky)

After a successful test of the cryogenic refueling system for the heavy-lift Space Launch System rocket, NASA says the weather forecast will determine whether it makes a third attempt to launch the Artemis 1 mission around the moon next week.

This isn’t just any weather: It’s a tropical depression in the Caribbean Sea that could turn into a hurricane that hits the Florida coast.

For now, NASA continues with preparations to move next Tuesday from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. “Ideally, we call it Plan A, because the cryotest was a success and right now we don’t have a forecast that violates our weather criteria,” said Mike Bolger, manager of NASA’s Exploration Ground Systems Program.

That plan could change, depending on the National Weather Service’s updated computer models for the storm system known as Tropical Depression 9. Even putting aside the hurricane threat, the outlook isn’t great: A forecast issued early today put the chances of unacceptable weather at 80%, with clouds and precipitation among the concerns. Mission leaders will announce on Saturday whether they will continue to follow Plan A, and we will update this report with their decision.

The weather is currently the only concern for the first launch of the SLS. In the past month, the lift had to be postponed twice due to problems that arose during the fueling process. After the scrubs, NASA replaced some of the seals on the rocket and put “kinder, gentler” procedures in place for fuel.

The repairs and updated procedures were tested on Wednesday. All of the rocket’s propellant tanks were filled—leading NASA’s chief engineer for the SLS program, John Blevins, to say it was a “very successful day.”

NASA also received approval from the US Space Force, which manages the range for Florida launches, to delay replacing the batteries on the rocket’s flight termination system. This means that the rocket must not be rolled back from the launch pad for technical reasons.

If the launch team decides that stormy weather will make it too risky to keep the SLS on the pad, Plan B will involve moving the 5.5 million-pound, 321-foot-tall rocket back to the Vehicle Assembly Building. That would give NASA a chance to replace the batteries and perform other maintenance — but mission managers worry that rollback and rollout could introduce new risks. And that’s why they prefer to launch the rocket next week if they can.

The first launch of the Space Launch System, the most powerful rocket ever built for NASA, is just the beginning of NASA’s Artemis 1 mission. SLS will send an unmanned Orion capsule on a looping, week-long trip around the moon and back. Sensors attached to three mannequins will collect data on radiation exposure, temperature and other environmental factors.

Orion will also carry an experimental Alexa-style voice assistant – created by Amazon in collaboration with NASA, Lockheed Martin and Cisco – that could be used on future crewed missions.

If Artemis 1 is successful, it will lay the foundation for a manned lunar mission known as Artemis 2 in 2024, and then an Artemis 3 lunar landing that could happen as early as 2025.

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