WASHINGTON — NASA has canceled plans to attempt to launch the Artemis 1 mission on Sept. 27 as a tropical storm with the potential to become a major hurricane heads toward Florida.
NASA announced on Sept. 24 that it would not proceed with the next launch opportunity for the mission, which was Sept. 27 at 11:37 a.m. east. He cited the threat posed by Tropical Storm Ian, currently in the Caribbean Sea. National Hurricane Center forecasts show the storm moving north and then curving northeast to reach south and central Florida by midweek as a major hurricane.
While NASA will not proceed with a launch on Sept. 27, it has postponed a decision to roll the Space Launch System rocket and Orion spacecraft back into the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) at the Kennedy Space Center to protect it from the storm while ongoing preparations for overthrow. NASA said in the statement that it will wait until Sept. 25 to make that decision “to allow for the collection and analysis of additional data.”
In a Sept. 23 briefing, NASA officials said they prefer to leave SLS at Launch Complex 39B. Doing so could preserve a final launch opportunity in this October 2 window, while returning the vehicle to VAB could make it difficult to attempt a launch in the next window in the second half of October.
During the briefing, Mike Bolger, director of the Exploration Ground Systems program at NASA, noted that the vehicle is rated to handle wind gusts of up to 74 knots (137 kilometers per hour) on the pad. “At this time, we do not have a forecast that shows winds blowing higher than 74 knots passing through the Kennedy Space Center,” he said.
“We have a certified design with safety factors in these peak gusts,” said John Blevins, SLS chief engineer. “Ultimately we have a pretty robust vehicle and we’ll just have to continue to look at that forecast to see if we’re within our certified parameters.”
Agency officials seem strangely downplayed by the threat posed by the storm, which at press time was still an unnamed tropical depression but is forecast to strengthen significantly in the coming days. “It’s not even a named storm. It’s tropical depression number nine,” said Tom Whitmeyer, deputy associate administrator for joint exploration systems development at NASA Headquarters. “It’s very early and some of the tracks we’re seeing are going in different directions and going at different speeds.”
“I wish we were better at forecasting the weather five days in advance,” he added, noting that if he could, “I’d almost quit this job to go work for the weather office.”
In a statement after the briefing, NASA appeared to be doing some damage control. “NASA is grateful to its partners at NOAA, the United States Space Force and the National Hurricane Center for providing us with the highest quality products to protect our nation’s flight tests to return us to the Moon,” the agency said.
Tanking test update and FTS exemption
Weather proved to be the biggest constraint on the launch after problems with hydrogen leaks were dealt with and the rocket’s flight termination system was cleared.
In the Sept. 23 briefing, officials said they were satisfied with the tank test two days earlier, where the rocket’s core and upper stages were filled with liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen. NASA said the test met all of its objectives despite hydrogen leaks that occurred during it.
“Overall, it was a good day. We are very pleased with the results,” said Brad McCain, vice president and general manager of Jacobs Space Operations Group. “We are very optimistic about the next launch attempt.”
He and others said they were still in the process of learning how to best load propellants into the vehicle, which takes practice. “The pressure and temperature of that seal — any seal in cryogenics — is always going to be difficult,” Blevins said. “Sometimes it takes a while to discover the stability points.”
With the bus, McCain said, “it took a lot of tanks to get it right, to get it consistent.”
Blevins said NASA also cleared another launch hurdle by securing a waiver from the US Space Force, which operates the Eastern Range, for the SLS Flight Termination System (FTS). This system was only certified until the end of the previous launch window that ended in early September, but NASA had discussions in the series to show that the system would still work if the vehicle launched in late September or early October.
“We got approval for the launch attempts we have on the books,” which at the time were Sept. 27 and Oct. 2, Blevins said. “They did a lot of work to help us get to where we are.”
He did not say whether that waiver would be good if the launch slips to later in the year. However, if NASA decides to return the SLS to the VAB, Whitmeyer said workers would service the FTS and effectively restart the clock on its certification for a later launch attempt.
“I don’t want to go into details because it’s just not relevant here,” Blevins said of the work to secure the FTS exemption, adding that revealing any details would be “foolish” given the number of parameters involved in Space Force. analysis of the waiver request. “They have an incredible mission and they are doing a good job at it. I’m really glad we had enough information to provide the public safety assurance they can rate.”