NASA is expected to make a decision today as to whether it will be safe to keep the 322-foot-tall Space Launch System (SLS) Moon rocket on its pad until the October 2 launch window. The Kennedy Space Center, along with much of the rest of Florida, lies in the projected path of Hurricane Ian, which has already achieved maximum sustained winds of 75 miles per hour. The SLS is capable of withstanding wind speeds of up to 85 miles per hour while exposed on its launch pad — meaning that the looming hurricane could well force NASA engineers to roll the massive rocket back to the shelter of its assembly building.
A spokesperson for the space agency said: “NASA continues to closely monitor the weather forecast associated with Tropical Storm Ian.”
Meanwhile, they added, their engineers are “conducting final preparations to allow for rolling back the Artemis I Space Launch System rocket and Orion spacecraft to the Vehicle Assembly building.
“Managers met Sunday evening to review the latest information on the storm and decided to meet again Monday to allow for additional data gathering overnight before making the decision on roll back.
“NASA continues to prioritise its people while protecting the Artemis I rocket and spacecraft system.”
Should NASA feel it remains safe to keep the SLS on its launch pad through the impending storm, it may still be possible for the Artemis I mission to launch next Sunday, October 2.
If the weather does indeed force a rollback to the assembly building, however, the next launch attempt will have to be pushed until late October or perhaps even November.
The next launch window runs from October 17–31, with a take-off opportunity available each day except for October 24–26 and 28.
In the following month there are 12 launch opportunities in the period spanning November 12–27.
Both of these issues were reexamined last week when NASA undertook a “cryogenic demonstration test”, which saw a practice tanking of the SLS’s core and interim stages with more than 730.000 gallons of liquid hydrogen fuel.
The space agency reported that “after encountering a hydrogen leak early in the loading process, engineers were able to troubleshoot the issue and proceed with the planned activities.”
These activities included revisiting the kick-start bleed test — in which a small amount of liquid hydrogen fuel is used to cool down the four RS-25 engines at the base of the rocket’s core stage to 423F (217C) — that threw up problems during the first launch attempt.
The purpose of this was to ensure that the engines are not unduly stressed when the supercool fuel is channelled into them properly at the time of launch.
Following the demo, NASA reported “all objectives [were] met” — leading to optimism that the SLS will be able to successfully launch on the next attempt. Exactly When that will be, however, remains in the hands of the weather.