Ian, the ninth named tropical storm of the current Atlantic hurricane season, has foiled NASA’s plan to launch the Artemis 1 mission on Tuesday September 27.
As of late as Friday afternoon, NASA officials were casually dismissing the Caribbean storm system, but the space agency has since smartly concluded that Tropical Ian, as the system is now called, is something to be concerned about.
In a blog post published this morning, NASA said it’s “foregoing a launch opportunity” on and is “preparing for rollback, while continuing to watch the weather forecast associated” with the tropical storm. The 321-foot-tall (98-meter) megarocket is currently standing at Launch Pad 39B at Kennedy Space Center in Florida, as NASA prepares for the Artemis 1 mission, in which an uncrewed Orion capsule will attempt a trek to the Moon and back.
But while NASA has canceled Tuesday’s inaugural launch, the agency has not yet made a decision about whether it wants to roll the rocket back to the nearby Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB)—a giant hanger that would provide shelter should the storm hit the region. That NASA is even thinking of leaving SLS and Orion on the pad boggles my mind. The entire system—Orion included—cost $50 billion to develop and each launch of the rocket will cost around $4 billion. And with NASA’s perpetual insistence on safety, it’s time for the space agency to practice what it preaches.
SLS can endure 85-mile-per-hour (137-kilometer-per-hour) wind gusts at the pad, while rollback can withstand sustained winds reaching 46 mph (74 kph), as NASA officials explained at a press briefing held yesterday. That’s a relief, but the chance exists that the rocket could be damaged by wind-swept objects. Better for NASA not to take that chance, in my opinion.
With Tuesday’s launch postponed, teams are now configuring systems in preparation for an eventual rollback; engineers deferred their decision “to allow for additional data gathering and analysis” and will make a decision on Sunday. Should a roll back happen, it would start either late Sunday night or early Monday morning.
That Tropical Storm Ian could reach Kennedy Space Center is a distinct possibility. Projections from NOAA’s National Hurricane Center show potential storm winds reaching the area on Tuesday evening. NASA says it’ll take about two days to roll SLS to the VAB, which doesn’t leave the space agency much time. In addition to sheltering the rocket, NASA will need to take care in ensuring that its employees are likewise safe and able to seek shelter if and when the storm hits.
“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,” NASA wrote.
Launch won’t happen on Tuesday, but the Eastern Range, a branch of Space Force that oversees launches from the Florida east coast, issued a waiver yesterday stating that NASA has the option to launch on Sunday October 2. The next launch attempt will be NASA’s third to get SLS and Orion into space, with technical issues resulting in scrubs on August 29 and September 3.