With the approaching threat of what is forecast to be Hurricane Ian, NASA finally threw in the towel Saturday for a launch attempt Tuesday of its Artemis I mission to the moon from Kennedy Space Center.
On Sunday, managers indicated they would wait longer before making a decision on whether or not to roll back the massive 5.75 million-pound, 322-foot-tall combination of Space Launch System rocket, mobile launcher and Orion spacecraft to the safety of the Vehicle Assembly Building.
In an update posted to NASA’s website, that decision won’t come until Sunday night, and a potential rollback won’t be started until Monday or early Tuesday.
“The latest information provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. Space Force, and the National Hurricane Center indicates a slower moving and potentially more westerly track of the storm than yesterday’s predictions showed, providing more time for the agency’s decision making process and for employees to prioritize their families should the storm impact the Kennedy Space Center area,” the update reads.
Initially, NASA had indicated a rollback could potentially begin Sunday night or early Monday.
With each updated forecast, the effects of the storm’s arrival keep getting pushed farther away from the Space Coast. Initially forecasts said that the Space Coast could be feeling tropical-storm-force winds Tuesday morning, the same time NASA had intended to launch.
What is currently Tropical Storm Ian located in the central Caribbean is forecast to become a hurricane Sunday night or Monday morning, and then move north over Cuba into the Gulf of Mexico. It’s center is projected to be more than 100 miles off Florida’s southwest coast on Wednesday with a potential landfall anywhere from the Panhandle down to Fort Myers as a Category 2 hurricane with 105 mph winds as late as Friday.
The consensus track as of 11 a.m. Sunday the center of the storm targeting the big bend south of Tallahassee.
“The agency is taking a step-wise approach to its decision making process to allow the agency to protect its employees by completing a safe roll in time for them to address the needs of their families while also protecting for the option to press ahead with another launch opportunity in the current window if weather predictions improve,” the initial statement read Saturday.
In a briefing Friday, missions managers noted the rocket was certified to endure 85 mph sustained winds on the launch pad. A rollback would take about three days to ready the hardware for traveling and make the slow 4-mile trip back to the VAB from Launch Pad 39-B. Previously, officials had said the rolls to and from the VAB can put more stress on the hardware, so if they can, staying at the launch pad is preferable.
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“We’ve got a robust design, but we want to protect the vehicle,” said John Blevins, SLS chief engineer.
If managers elect to stay on the pad, the next opportunity to launch during this window is Sunday, Oct. 2, a 109-minute window that opens at 2:52 p.m. and fly for roughly a 41-day mission and land on Nov. 11.
After that, NASA would have to stand down until the next available windows on Oct. 17-31, Nov. 12-27 and Dec. 9-23. Each window has only certain days during which the Earth and moon are in the right position for the planned mission.
Artemis I is an uncrewed mission that combines the mobile launcher, Space Launch System rocket and Orion spacecraft. The SLS’s 8.8 million pounds of thrust at liftoff would become the most powerful rocket to ever launch from Earth besting the Saturn V rockets from the Apollo missions.
The Orion spacecraft will be propelled into a trans-lunar injection during which plans are to send it to as far as 280,000 miles away, 40,000 miles farther than the moon. It will make several orbits of the moon over several weeks before returning to Earth faster than any human-rated spacecraft has ever attempted re-entry, coming in at 24,500 mph creating heat of 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit.
The goal is to make sure Orion can endure extremes to keep humans safe on future missions. If successful, Artemis II could fly with a crew to orbit the moon in 2024 and Artemis III could fly as early as 2025 to return humans including the first woman to the lunar surface for the first time since Apollo 17 in 1972.
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