Possible hurricane poses threat to NASA’s Artemis moon launch plans

Possible hurricane poses threat to NASA’s Artemis moon launch plans

NASA is pushing ahead with another attempt to launch the Artemis 1 lunar rocket on its leak-delayed maiden flight Tuesday as it monitors the track of a potential hurricane that could bring high winds and heavy rain to the Florida Space Coast, officials said Friday.

Meanwhile, Space Force Eastern Range, which oversees all military and civilian launches from Florida, granted a request from NASA to waive a time-consuming inspection of the rocket’s self-destruct batteries that would have required a rollback to the agency’s Vehicle Assembly Building.

With the waiver in hand, and with engineers saying a fuel test Wednesday showed leaks in the rocket’s hydrogen supply system are manageable, weather is the biggest constraint on getting the long-delayed Artemis 1 mission off the ground.

The Space Launch System rocket atop pad 39B at the Kennedy Space Center on Friday afternoon.  NASA engineers say the rocket can withstand hurricane-force gusts at the launch pad, but hope a looming storm will spare the spaceport.  Nevertheless, the forecast for a launch possibility on Tuesday is 80 percent no-go.  / Credit: NASA

The Space Launch System rocket atop pad 39B at the Kennedy Space Center on Friday afternoon. NASA engineers say the rocket can withstand hurricane-force gusts at the launch pad, but hope a looming storm will spare the spaceport. Nevertheless, the forecast for a launch possibility on Tuesday is 80 percent no-go. / Credit: NASA

The goal of the test flight is to send an unpiloted Orion crew capsule on a long flight around the moon to help pave the way for the first manned launch in 2024 and a lunar landing mission in the 2025-26 timeframe.

But the Space Launch System rocket’s path to launch has been rocky, and now the weather threatens further delays.

The National Hurricane Center predicts a storm, known as Tropical Depression No. 9, will strengthen into a major hurricane – Hermine – over the next few days, cross western Cuba and then hit the southwest coast of Florida.

The forecast track shows the storm moving northeast across the Florida peninsula, possibly bringing tropical storm force winds or higher to the Kennedy Space Center, where the SLS rocket sits exposed atop pad 39B.

While the $4.1 billion lunar rocket will not be launched in strong winds, Chief Engineer John Blevins said it can safely withstand gusts as high as 74 knots at the pad. And while the official forecast is currently 80% “no-go” for a launch on Tuesday, it does not violate NASA’s safety restrictions to remain at the pad.

But if the forecast worsens, engineers can pull the SLS back into the protection of the Vehicle Assembly Building with about three days’ notice. It’s a last resort, a move likely to delay the rocket’s maiden flight by several weeks.

“Our Plan A is to stay the course and launch on September 27,” said Mike Bolger, director of Exploration Ground Systems at Kennedy Space Center. “We realize that we also have to be very attentive and think about a plan B.”

“If we were to (go with) plan B, we would need a couple of days to pivot from our current tank test, or launch, configuration to perform a rollback and get back to the protection of the VAB,” Bolger added.

He said the team planned to meet Friday night to discuss the latest forecast “and we think we’ll probably make a decision no later than sometime tomorrow morning or very early afternoon” on how to proceed.

“We are good on the surface for winds up to 74 top knots,” Bolger said. “And for rollback, we’re looking for a forecast of sustained winds less than 40 knots. We’re going to be watching closely. More information is better, and I think hopefully in the next 24 hours. get good news, then we’ll stick around to Plan A.”

Tom Whitmeyer, a senior manager at NASA headquarters, downplayed weather concerns, telling reporters “it’s not even a named storm, it’s a tropical depression, number nine. It’s very early in it, and some of the tracks we’ve seen are going to different directions and go at different speeds and different intensities.”

But the National Hurricane Center’s 11 a.m. EDT forecast said the system is expected to move “near or over western Cuba as an intensifying hurricane and then approach the Florida peninsula at or near major hurricane strength, with the potential for significant impacts from storm surge, hurricane – strong winds and heavy rainfall.”

Friday marked 190 days since the SLS rocket first hauled out to pad 39B for what turned out to be the first in a frustrating series of fuel tests to resolve a series of technical problems and repeated problems with hydrogen leaks in quick couplers where volatile fuel enters the bottom of the rocket.

After three refueling test attempts, a rollback to the VAB for repairs, and a fourth test on June 20, engineers returned the SLS rocket to the VAB for a second time to perform additional troubleshooting. The rocket was moved back to the pad in mid-August for a launch attempt on the 29th.

But two attempts in a row were aborted due to several hydrogen problems. That prompted repairs to the launch pad to replace a suspected seal in an 8-inch hydrogen quick-release coupling that leaked earlier.

During a tank test Wednesday to verify the repair, the fitting leaked again, but engineers were able to bring it back down to acceptable levels by using lower pressures and flow rates.

The “kindler, milder” fuel technique was intended to put less stress on the hardware, and it worked. Engineers were able to fully load the rocket and conduct two critical tests of the core stage engine cooling system.

But NASA has yet to bring the SLS countdown into its final half-minute, and weather aside, making it all the way to zero Tuesday could still be a challenge. Any additional leaks or other issues that may arise will need to be dealt with in a shorter 70-minute launch window.

NASA has a backup launch option on Oct. 2, but after that, the Artemis 1 mission will likely stop until after NASA launches a new crew to the International Space Station aboard a SpaceX Crew Dragon. That launch is currently targeted for October 3rd, weather permitting.

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