Artemis I Headed Back to the Safety of the VAB

Artemis I Headed Back to the Safety of the VAB

With Hurricane Ian headed to Florida, NASA has decided to roll the Artemis I Space Launch System rocket and Orion spacecraft back to the safety of the Vehicle Assembly Building. The 322-foot tall rocket is currently at Launch Complex-39B, completely exposed to whatever weather conditions Ian brings to the Space Coast. First movement is planned tonight at 11:00 pm ET for the 4-mile trip, which takes 8-12 hours.

NASA has been wrestling with the decision for days waiting for more information on the track and intensity of the storm. After scrubbing the launch on August 29 and September 3, the plan was to try again on September 27.

At first, the agency stuck with that plan, but as the threat became clearer on Saturday decided to forgo September 27. It began preparations to roll the SLS/Orion “stack” back to the VAB if necessary.

Crawler Transporter-2 on its way to Launch Complex-39B September 24, 2022 in preparation for rolling the Artemis I SLS/Orion stack back to the Vehicle Assembly Building if necessary due to Tropical Storm Ian (later Hurricane Ian). Photo credit: NASA/Joel Kowsky

The stack can withstand 74 knot wind gusts while it is on the launch pad, but sustained winds must be less than 40 knots if it is being moved.

NASA planned to made a final decision yesterday on whether to ride-out the storm at the pad or roll back to the VAB, but the situation remained fluid.

It takes three days to get the rocket ready to roll and complete the trip, so the agency cannot wait until the last minute to see where Ian goes. At the moment it is forecast to hit the west coast of Florida, but winds and rain would still impact Kennedy Space Center on the east coast.

This morning the decision was made to roll back. NASA had to think not only about the safety of the rocket, but of its workforce.

“NASA will roll the Artemis I Space Launch System rocket and Orion spacecraft back to the Vehicle Assembly Building on Monday, Sept. 26. First motion is targeted for 11 p.m. EDT.

“Managers met Monday morning and made the decision based on the latest weather predictions associated with Hurricane Ian, after additional data gathered overnight did not show improving expected conditions for the Kennedy Space Center area. The decision allows time for employees to address the needs of their families and protect the integrated rocket and spacecraft system. The time of first motion also is based on the best predicted conditions for rollback to meet weather criteria for the move.” — NASA statement, September 26, 2022

NASA had hoped to avoid stressing the rocket and spacecraft by rolling the stack back to the VAB and then return to the launch pad again. It has taken two round trips twice already, in March and June for Wet Dress Rehearsal tests, and then a one-way trip for launch in August.

NASA also wanted to preserve the chance of launching at the next opportunity, October 2, but that no longer is an option.

Artemis I is an uncrewed test flight of SLS and Orion around the Moon. It can launch only at certain times when the Earth, Moon and Sun are in proper positions relative to each other to meet test conditions such as ensuring Orion’s solar arrays get enough power and the spacecraft returns to Earth in daylight.

The next launch window is October 17-31, but not October 24, 25, 26, or 28.

Now that the rocket is headed back to the VAB, NASA may decide to replace the battery for the Flight Termination System that was an issue earlier and do other maintenance so whether it will try in October or wait until November remains to be seen. The next window is November 12-27, but not November 20, 21 or 26.

Gray and red blocks mean they cannot launch, green means they can. The difference between light green and dark green is whether it is a short duration or long duration mission.

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