NASA Carries Out an Inspection of the Artemis I Rocket Following Hurricane Nicole

Hurricane Nicole made landfall as a Category 1 storm about 70 miles south of the Kennedy Space Center in Florida last night. The Artemis I moon rocket is still standing, even though it was hit by the storm.

The $4.1 billion rocket rode out the storm on its launchpad, where it was out in the open. It’s not clear yet how the hurricane affected the Space Launch System rocket or the Orion spacecraft that’s sitting on top of it, but the first inspections have started.

“Our team is conducting initial visual check-outs of the rocket, spacecraft, and ground system equipment with the cameras at the launchpad. Camera inspections show very minor damage such as loose caulk and tears in weather coverings. The team will conduct additional onsite walk down inspections on the vehicle soon,” according to a Thursday afternoon statement from Jim Free, associate administrator for NASA’s Exploration Systems Development Mission Directorate.

“Teams monitored SLS and Orion remotely during the storm and successfully maintained purges and other essential support,” the statement says.

Before Hurricane Nicole hit land, the Artemis I mission team was worried about wind gusts and possible debris. NASA officials said in a statement on Tuesday that the rocket is built to handle winds of up to 85 miles per hour (74.4 knots) with some room to spare.

“While wind sensors at the launch pad detected peak wind gusts up to 82 miles per hour (71 knots) at the 60-foot level, this is within the rocket’s capability. We anticipate clearing the vehicle for those conditions shortly,” Free said.

But on Thursday night, a NASA representative told CNN that sensors at the 467-foot (142-meter) level of the lightning towers showed that the peak wind speed did reach up to 100 miles per hour (87 knots) at that location.

At 5:15 a.m. Thursday, sensors on one of the lightning towers around the rocket also measured wind speeds of 75 miles per hour (65 knots), with gusts as high as 100 miles per hour (87 knots).

On the website of the National Weather Service, you can find data from some of the sensors, which are owned by NASA and the US Space Force.

On that website, it says that the data sensor is 7 feet (2 meters) above the ground. But a meteorologist at the National Weather Service forecast office in Melbourne, Florida, told CNN that isn’t true. The actual height of the sensor is 230 feet (70 meters), which should give accurate readings of the winds the 322-foot-tall (98-meter-tall) rocket faced.

On Thursday, NASA did not answer questions about this particular point. Last week, when the storm was still an unnamed system off the East Coast, the space agency decided to move the SLS rocket to its launch pad.

At the time, officials thought the storm would bring steady winds of about 29 miles per hour (25 knots) and gusts of up to 46 miles per hour (40 knots).

Mark Burger, a launch weather officer with the 45th Weather Squadron of the US Space Force, said at a NASA news conference on November 3 that those conditions were well within what the rocket was designed to handle.

“The National Hurricane Center just has a 30% chance of it becoming a named storm,” Burger said at the news conference. “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.

“We took the decision to keep Orion and SLS at the launch pad very seriously, reviewing the data in front of us and making the best decision possible with high uncertainty in prediction the weather four days out,” according to the Thursday statement from Free.

“With the unexpected change to the forecast, returning to the Vehicle Assembly Building was deemed to be too risky in high winds, and the team decided the launch pad was the safest place for the rocket to weather the storm.”

It’s not easy to move the mega moon rocket from the launch pad to the Vehicle Assembly Building. Before the manoeuvre can happen, it usually takes about three days to get ready, and the mission team can only do so many rollbacks.

In good weather, it takes 10 to 12 hours for a slow NASA giant crawler from the Apollo era to go 4 miles (6.4 km). If the rocket had to be rolled back because a storm was coming, it could only handle winds that didn’t change direction for more than 46 miles per hour (40 knots).

Nicole was the first hurricane to hit the United States in November in almost 40 years. The storm was very strong.

Get ready for the Hurricane

NASA said in a statement on Tuesday that its teams turned off the Orion spacecraft, the side boosters on the rocket, and other parts to get ready for the storm. Engineers also put a hardcover on the rocket’s launch abort system window to protect it and did other things to get the ground systems ready.

After the first two attempts to launch the SLS rocket failed because of fuel leaks, the rocket was put away for weeks. In September, Hurricane Ian hit Florida and forced the rocket off the launchpad.

Last week, NASA workers put the rocket back on the launchpad so they could get ready for a third try on November 14. However, that date was changed to November 16 when NASA acknowledged on Tuesday that Hurricane Nicole was getting closer. As NASA checks for damage, it’s not clear if the launch date will be changed again.

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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