NASA Upbeat About Artemis I After Hurricane Nicole’s Wrath

NASA Upbeat About Artemis I After Hurricane Nicole’s Wrath

NASA sounded upbeat this afternoon about how well the Artemis I Space Launch System rocket and Orion spacecraft weathered Hurricane Nicole over the past 24 hours. Asserting that wind speeds at the rocket’s 60-foot level were within tolerances, Jim Free, head of the Exploration Systems Development Mission Directorate, tweeted that only minor damage has been noticed so far although more inspections are to come.

The third attempt to launch the Artemis I uncrewed flight test is currently scheduled for next Wednesday, November 16, at 1:04 am ET.

One week ago today, NASA decided to roll the SLS/Orion stack back to the launch pad to get ready for launch on November 14 despite the forecast of a developing tropical storm. At the time, there was only a 30 percent chance it would become a named storm and maximum winds of 40 knots were expected.

The Artemis I Space Launch System rocket and Orion spacecraft on their way back to Launch Complex-39B, November 4, 2022. Photo credit: NASA/Isaac Watson

As the days passed and it evolved into a subtropical storm, NASA decided to keep the stack at the launch pad instead of returning it to the safety of the Vehicle Assembly Building as it did in advance of Hurricane Ian, but delayed the launch two days.

The storm soon grew into Hurricane Nicole, but it was too late to return to the VAB, an 8-12 hour trip atop the Crawler-Transporter. Free said today the decision to keep it at the pad was taken “very seriously” but the trip was “deemed to be too risky in high winds, and the team decided the launch pad was the safest place for the rocket to weather the storm.”

NASA’s Kennedy Space Center went to HURCON I level yesterday, closing it entirely except for a ride-out team.

As wind speeds escalated overnight, the wisdom of keeping the stack at the pad seemed questionable. NASA says the 322-foot tall rocket can withstand 74.4 knot (85 mile-per-hour) winds at the 60-foot level. Numerous sources overnight cited National Weather Service data reporting wind gusts as high as 100 mph (87 knots), although it was not clear at what elevation those readings were taken.

Free said today at the 60-foot level the highest gust was 71 knots (82 mph) and that is “within the rocket’s capability.”

Initial checks of the rocket, spacecraft and ground systems using cameras “show very minor damage,” according to Free. Additional “onsite walk down inspections” will be conducted “soon.”

Concerns include potential damage from flying debris and water intrusion. Eric Berger reports in Ars Technica that structural issues could also arise due to loads experienced “by prolonged periods of high winds” hitting the rocket horizontally instead of vertically.

Emily Calandrelli (@TheSpaceGal) demonstrated the importance of the direction of the winds.

NASA tried to launch Artemis I on August 29 and September 3, but had to scrub both times. A plan to try again on September 27 was disrupted by Hurricane Ian.

If the launch does not go on November 16, a backup opportunity during the current launch period is on November 19. Another could be on November 25 if the FAA allows it during the busy Thanksgiving holiday when it prefers not to close airspace as required for rocket launches.

Artemis launch periods are available about every two weeks when the Earth, Moon and Sun are properly aligned to meet test objectives such as splashing down in daylight when Orion returns from its trip around the Moon. The next is December 9-22, except December 10, 14 and 18.

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