NASA rules out launch of Artemis 1 moon rocket before mid-November

NASA’s Space Launch System moon rocket rolls into High Bay 3 of the Vehicle Assembly Building on Sept. 27 to take shelter from Hurricane Ian. Credit: NASA/Joel Kowsky

NASA said Friday that officials have ruled out launching the agency’s first giant Space Launch System moon rocket and Orion spacecraft before mid-November, following the rocket’s return to the hangar at Kennedy Space Center for safekeeping from Hurricane Ian.

Ground teams at Kennedy completed initial inspections of the Artemis 1 moon rocket Friday after the spaceport experienced tropical storm force winds and heavy rain. Hurricane Ian, which struck Southwest Florida as a Category 4 storm, weakened to a tropical storm before reaching the Space Coast. The center of circulation passed directly over Kennedy Space Center.

NASA said the Artemis 1 moon rocket inside the Vehicle Assembly Building escaped damage, and ground facilities are in “good shape with only minor water intrusion identified in a few locations.”

Workers will next extend access platforms around the SLS moon rocket and Orion spacecraft inside High Bay 3 of the Vehicle Assembly Building. That will enable teams to perform additional inspections and prepare for the next launch attempt, which is now expected in November.

Agency officials said they are now targeting a launch period that opens Nov. 12 for the next opportunity to launch the Artemis 1 test flight. Artemis 1, which will fly without astronauts, is the inaugural demonstration flight of the huge Space Launch System moon rocket, and the first flight of an Orion crew capsule around the moon. If it goes well, Artemis 1 will pave the way for future crew missions to the moon, beginning with Artemis 2 as soon as 2024.

“Fortunately, it was down to about 55-knot winds when it hit us, and we had some flooding and stuff, but overall we’re looking good,” said Bob Cabana, NASA’s associate administrator. “And it was really good that we got that big rocket back in the barn. Ian track right between pad 39A and B is it went across, and it was great knowing that SLS and Orion were safe getting ready for Artemis 1.”

NASA hauled the 322-foot-tall (98-meter) moon rocket rocket off Launch Complex 39B and back to the VAB early Tuesday, before weather conditions deteriorated at Kennedy. It was the sixth time the SLS moon rocket has moved between the VAB and the launch pad since March, and engineers prefer to minimize the moves to limit wear and tear on the rocket from the vibrations of riding on top of the crawler. But in the end, NASA decided it was more risky to leave the rocket on the pad with tropical storm or hurricane force winds possible at Kennedy Space Center this week.

Managers hoped to launch the Artemis 1 test flight before the end of the current launch period Oct. 4, but the rollback to the VAB prevented that. And the moon rocket won’t be ready to head back to the launch pad in time for the next launch period from Oct. 17-31.

The November launch period opens Nov. 12 and runs through Nov. 27. NASA has about two weeks of launch availability in each Artemis launch period, followed by around two weeks when the mission would be not be feasible. The primary driver of the launch periods is the position of the moon in its 28-day orbit around Earth, but there are other factors, including NASA’s requirement for the trajectory to culminate in a splashdown of the Orion spacecraft in the Pacific Ocean in daytime.

“Focusing efforts on the November launch period allows time for employees at Kennedy to address the needs of their families and homes after the storm and for teams to identify additional checkouts needed before returning to the pad for launch,” NASA said.

The launch dates and times in the November launch period for Artemis 1. Credit: Spaceflight Now

Engineers plan several tasks with the rocket back in the VAB, including swapping out batteries on the flight termination system, which range safety teams would use to destroy the launch vehicle if it flies off course after liftoff and threatens populated areas. The battery changeout work will require technicians to open an access door and enter the “intertank” section of the SLS core stage, the volume between the core stage’s liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen tanks.

The U.S. Space Force’s Eastern Range, which is responsible for public safety for all launches from Florida’s Space Coast, granted NASA a waiver last week to extend their certification of the flight termination system batteries long enough to enable Artemis 1 launch attempts through early October. The batteries were originally only certified for 25 days, long enough to allow Artemis 1 launch attempts through early September.

Changing out and re-testing the batteries is only possible with the rocket back inside the VAB.

NASA engineers will also spend the next few weeks assessing parts of the Space Launch System moon rocket and Orion spacecraft that could have lifetime limitations. NASA began stacking the rocket’s solid-fueled boosters on the mobile launch platform in November 2020, and capped off stacking of the rocket with the addition of the Orion spacecraft last October.

Engineers are analyzing the condition of pre-packed propellants inside the Space Launch System’s solid rocket boosters, which originally were only certified for 12 months once stacked on the launch platform. That lifetime limit has been extended by engineering reviews, and John Blevins, the SLS program’s chief engineer, recently said the boosters should be good for at least a few more months.

There is also a limit for how long hypergolic hydrazine and nitrogen tetroxide propellants can be loaded on the service module of the Orion spacecraft. The hypergolic propellants will be used for in-space maneuvers by the Orion propulsion system during the trip to the moon and back.

“We have a list of, I’d say, about 20 things that we’re looking at that have different durations in which we have to revisit them,” said Jim Free, associate administrator of NASA’s exploration systems mission development division. “We’re always looking at batteries in general. Obviously, we’re looking at some of the hypergol (propellant) storage on the service module. We want to make sure that we’re staying on top of and understanding the long term implications of that.”

Engineers are evaluating the conditions different components have been exposed to since stacking began on the Artemis 1 moon rocket, Free said.

With winter approaching in the northern hemisphere, most of of the Artemis 1 launch windows in the next few months will be at night. The first days of the November launch period all come with middle of the night launch times.

“I think our preference is to launch in the daylight,” Free said. “I think we feel like the visuals that we get from our long range tracking cameras are of benefit to us. We do have obviously some ways we can view the vehicle if we were to launch in the dark. I think we look at the risk versus benefit trade. So our preference is probably a daylight launch but we don’t rule out the nighttime launch either.”

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