Another storm heading toward Florida and the Kennedy Space Center is being monitored ahead of the planned fourth NASA Artemis I launch attempt later this month. It’s just weeks after Hurricane Ian forced the space agency to call off plans for a third launch attempt. NASA associate administrator Jim Free and Kennedy’s senior vehicle operations manager Cliff Lanham gave a briefing on the mission this afternoon — which can be watched in the video above, or on NASA’s YouTube channel. Should a third time prove lucky and the space agency succeed in getting its 322-feet-tall rocket off the ground later this month, the mission will see the Orion spacecraft loop repeatedly around the Moon, carrying three radiation-measuring “phantoms”.
It will pass as close to the lunar surface as 62 miles, but also journey out some 40,000 miles beyond the Moon before returning to Earth — and complete the key test of the Orion space capsule’s heat shields as it goes through atmospheric re-entry.
Prior to the conference, a NASA spokesperson said that the space agency “is planning to roll the SLS rocket and Orion spacecraft to Launch Pad 39B at Kennedy [Space Centre] Friday November 4 at 12.01 am [local time, 4.01am GMT].
“The agency continues to target launch for Monday November 13, with liftoff planned during a 69-minute launch window that opens at 12.07am EST [5.07am GMT].
“A launch on November 14 would result in a mission duration of about 25-and-a-half days with a splashdown in the Pacific Ocean Friday, December 9.
“Through Artemis missions, NASA will land the first woman and the first person of colour on the Moon, paving the way for a long-term lunar presence, and serving as a stepping stone to send astronauts to Mars.”
During the briefing, Mr Free said: “We are on track to roll back to the launch pad this evening. We just finished a call just under an hour ago where we aware this storm that we’re keeping an eye on that’s heading towards Florida to understand the impact that might have on the vehicle.
“We came to a decision that we’re going to go ahead and roll out this evening, in advance of our November 14 launch attempt. I think we’re confident in the decision process that went into that.
“We talked about a lot of the same things we talked about with the hurricane [Ian]. Certainly, the wind force is not the same and the duration is not the same. Our engineering team felt it was okay to risk to go out tonight.”
Mr Free added that NASA is presently only anticipating wind speeds of up to 40–46 miles per hour — well within safety margins, with the SLS capable of withstanding gusts at up to 85 mph while on the launch pad.
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Mr Free also acknowledged some of the hurdles that the Artemis programme has seen so far. He said: “I do want to reflect on the fact that this is a challenging mission.
“We’ve seen challenges just getting all our systems to work together — and that’s why we do a flight test. It’s about going after the things that can’t be modelled. And we’re learning by taking more risk on this mission before we put crew on there.”
Mr Lanham, meanwhile, provided an update on the work that has been undertaken on the SLS since it was rolled back to the vehicle assembly building in late September. Engineers, he explained, have been making repairs to the rocket’s thermal protection systems and the so-called flight termination system that allows NASA to safely self-destruct the rocket in the event that something goes wrong after launch.
Other maintenance tasks have included recharging the batteries in the Orion capsule and replacing batteries in the tiny satellite payloads also being carried into orbit by the rocket — and then readying the SLS for its slow journey back the four miles to the launch pad about its so-called “crawler-transporter”. Mr Lanham added: “We’re actually retracting our final platform now — and the crawler-transporter is now in the high bay underneath the mobile launcher.”
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Should Artemis I again fail to launch on November 14, a pair of two-hour backup windows have also been pencilled in by the space agency for the same week — one on November 16 and the other on November 19.
In a twist on the previous launch attempts, all three new target windows will be at night — starting at 12.07am local time (5.07am GMT) on November 14, 1.04am CST (06.04am GMT) on November 16 and 1.45am (6.45am GMT) on November 19.
Mr Free said that discussions were had about the preference for launching during the daytime — but, he noted, “it’s a preference and not a requirement.” He added: “Everyone is comfortable with launching in the evening, and I think everyone feels really good about the launch.”
According to the space agency, a successful blast-off on November 14 would lead to a 25-and-a-half day mission around the Moon, splashing down in the Pacific Ocean on December 9.