NASA’s Artemis I Mission Delayed Again as Storm Approaches Launch Location

The Artemis I mission, which is supposed to send an unmanned spacecraft on a test mission around the moon, has been pushed back again because NASA’s Space Launch System has to deal with Tropical Storm Nicole, which is now expected to turn into a hurricane before hitting Florida’s East Coast.

The third launch attempt was supposed to happen on November 14, but now NASA is looking at November 16 instead, “pending safe conditions for employees to return to work and inspections after the storm has passed,” the agency said in a statement Tuesday night. There would be a two-hour launch window on November 16, starting at 1:04 a.m. ET.

CNN meteorologist Brandon Miller pointed out that the SLS rocket is waiting on its launchpad at Kennedy Space Center, which is located not far to the north of where the storm’s centre is predicted to make landfall. This means that the area will get some of the strongest winds from the system.

Miller says that if it is a Category 1 hurricane with winds of 75 miles per hour (120 kilometers per hour), as is expected, the gusts could be between 80 and 90 miles per hour (130 to 145 kilometers per hour). That could mean that the rocket will be hit by winds that are stronger than what the rocket was designed to handle. Officials say that SLS is made to handle winds of up to 85 miles per hour (137 kph).

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“Further, the National Weather Service in Melbourne, Florida, has forecasted max wind gusts occurring early Thursday morning of 86 miles per hour,” Miller added. “So yes, this is absolutely possible that wind gusts exceed that threshold.”

The latest report from the National Hurricane Center also says that there is a 15% chance that hurricane-force winds will last in Cocoa Beach, which is about 20 miles (32 km) south of the launch site.

NASA officials, however, said in a statement that high winds, which are not expected to be stronger than the SLS design, are the biggest risk at the launch pad.

“The rocket is designed to withstand heavy rains at the launch pad and the spacecraft hatches have been secured to prevent water intrusion,” the statement continues.

The storm was still an unnamed system off the East Coast when the space agency decided to move the SLS rocket to its launch pad last week. At the time, officials thought this storm would bring steady winds of about 25 knots (29 miles per hour) with gusts of up to 40 knots (46 miles per hour).

This was well within the limits of what the rocket could handle, according to comments made by Mark Burger, a launch weather officer with the US Space Force’s 45th Weather Squadron, at a NASA news conference on November 3.

“The National Hurricane Center just has a 30% chance of it becoming a named storm,” Burger said last Thursday. “However, that being said, the models are very consistent on developing some sort of a low pressure.”

But on Monday, three days after the rocket was moved to the launchpad, the storm became a named system.

Nicole is expected to be the first hurricane to hit the United States in November in almost 40 years, which shows how strong the storm is.

NASA said that its teams turned off the SLS rocket’s side boosters and other parts to get ready for the storm. The Orion spacecraft, which sits on top of the rocket, was also turned off.

“Engineers have also installed a hard cover over the launch abort system window, retracted and secured the crew access arm on the mobile launcher and configured the settings for the environmental control system on the spacecraft and rocket elements,” according to the statement.

“Teams also are securing nearby hardware and performing walkdowns for potential debris in the area.”

Kennedy Space Center declared on its Twitter feed Tuesday that it is “in a HURICON III status and continues to prep for the upcoming storm taking prudent precautions across all of our programmes, activities, and workforce in advance of the storm.”

Preparations for HURICON III include “securing facilities, property, and equipment” and sending out a “rideout team,” which is a group of people who will be on site to look at any damage.

The SLS rocket had been put away for weeks after the first two attempts to launch it failed because of fuel leaks. Then, in September, Hurricane Ian hit Florida and forced the rocket off the launchpad.

NASA officials put the rocket back on the launch pad last week with the goal of getting it ready for a third try on November 14. It’s not clear how or if the storm could change those plans.

The main goal of the Artemis program at NASA is to send people back to the moon for the first time in 50 years. And the Artemis I mission, which is expected to be the first of many, will lay the groundwork by testing the rocket, spacecraft, and all of their parts to make sure they are safe enough for astronauts to fly to the moon and back.

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