A fire at NASA Kennedy gives the long-delayed moon mission its final twist

NASA is in the middle to mitigate the destructive potential of a powerful hurricane heading toward Florida. Tuesday featured another burst of chaos when a fire broke out inside the building that currently houses the agency’s Moonbound Artemis I rocket.

Kennedy Space Center (KSC) Director Janet Petro told reporters Tuesday that NASA leaders are considering how to handle the troubling weather reports they’ve received. What started as a tropical depression in the western Caribbean last week quickly escalated into Hurricane Ian, which is expected to hit eastern Florida with tropical storm-force winds Wednesday morning.

Note: If you’ve been following the developing news on Hurricane Ian, consider watching this video from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) on how to interpret hurricane track forecasts. DO NOT use the cone to assess the risk of high winds, thunderstorms, heavy rainfall or tornadoes.

KSC is spared a direct hit because of its location at Cape Canaveral on Florida’s Atlantic coast, but wind and lightning are still dangerously rough. The teams met several times over the weekend starting Friday to discuss the storm’s track and intensity. “We have the hurricane plan that applies to all of NASA’s hurricane organizations and contractors,” Petro said.

KSC prepares for Hurricane Ian

The four stages of HURCON, or hurricane conditions, describe NASA’s storm preparation steps, starting at IV and gradually moving down in 72-, 48-, 24-, and 12-hour increments until the storm hits.

Clouds from approaching Hurricane Ian darken the sky near St. Petersburg, Florida, on September 27, 2022.Joe Raedle/Getty Images News/Getty Images

KSC began running through the hurricane warning system on Monday. “At that time, alerts and preparations began with communications with each agency and our center and we began identifying personnel to ride out the storm as members of our team.

After a meeting at 9:00 a.m. east of Tuesday, KSC entered the next stage. “We declared and entered HURCON III this morning,” said Petro. That’s the 48-hour period before the storm’s arrival, “when most of the hurricane’s work happens,” Petro added. “We are moving forward to secure our facilities, our property, our equipment and hopefully the team members who will be taking the car will be able to go home and prepare their homes for the arrival of this storm.”

Shortly after this meeting at 9:15 A.M. east, Artemis A entered KSC’s Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) so NASA could protect it from the harsh weather conditions en route. VAB has withstood previous storms and even lost hundreds of exterior panels during back-to-back hurricanes in 2004.

But then, a few hours later, a fire broke out in that shelter. “Today at approximately 11:45 p.m., a fire was reported in the Vehicle Assembly Building. Workers were evacuated and no injuries were reported,” KSC said Twitter. “The VAB is fire safe and the Artemis I vehicle was not in danger. We will provide updates as we have them.” The agency reported later Twitter that it happened at 11:45 A.M

Petro said no injuries were reported and that it likely had no effect on the Artemis I as it happened “a good distance” away from the missile. NASA says it is still investigating the cause of the fire.

What does this mean for the release of Artemis I?

NASA is coordinating various factors to see what is the best choice for the next launch target. An October launch, as early as next week, is not off the table. But Jim Free, associate administrator for NASA’s Exploration Systems Development Mission Directorate, suggested that’s unlikely. Free told reporters that he didn’t want Artemis I to return to the launchpad too quickly without first addressing the “life-limited elements” that need periodic reevaluation.

Free also said the team would prefer to do a day launch, but the November launch opportunities wouldn’t support that.

For now, the NASA workforce is completing final storm preparations for the rocket and their families.

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