ORLANDO, Fla. — If all goes well, this could be the last time NASA has to make the final four-mile trip to the launch pad for Artemis I.
The 5.75 million-pound, 322-foot-tall combination of the Space Launch System, Orion capsule and mobile launcher is slated to leave the Vehicle Assembly Building at Kennedy Space Center one minute after midnight to arrive to Launch Pad 39-B on Friday morning.
The National Hurricane Center continues to send advisories on what is now Tropical Depression Lisa moving over the Yucatan peninsula and Hurricane Martin in the far north Atlantic, but also two mor...
This will be its fourth trip from the VAB to the launch pad after two visits in early 2022 for dress rehearsal tests, and then its last roll that resulted in several launch attempt scrubs in August and September. Riding atop crawler-transporter 2, the trip takes six to 12 hours with speeds that top out at less than 1 mph.
NASA had to scrub previous launch attempts with liquid hydrogen leaks proving the most common culprit. Although NASA fixed issues at the launch pad following the last scrub on Sept. 3, teams decided to protect its $4.1 billion rocket and spacecraft from the threat of Hurricane Ian, which ended up carving a path that took it right over the space center.
Tropical weather potential is still on NASA’s mind as the National Hurricane Center is looking at a low-pressure area expected to form over the weekend that could have it threatening Florida next week, but with only at this point a threat of wind gusts around 45 mph. The system has a 30% of becoming a named storm in the next five days.
“We were thinking about this storm that we’re keeping an eye on that’s heading toward Florida to understand the impacts that we might have on the vehicle and we needed to think through some things, and came to the decision that we’re going to go ahead and roll out,” said NASA’s Jim Free, associate administrator for the Exploration Systems Development Mission Directorate on Thursday. “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 with the hurricane, certainly the wind force is not the same and the duration is not the same, but things that we need to look at, the life on the vehicle, and decided that ... it was OK risk to go out tonight.”
The midnight run is apropos since NASA is aiming to launch Artemis I in the early morning hours on one of three announced attempts in mid-November.
The first opportunity comes Monday, Nov. 14, with a 69-minute window that opens at 12:07 a.m. Two two-hour backup windows are available on Wednesday, Nov. 16, starting at 1:04 a.m. and Saturday, Nov. 19, starting at 1:45 a.m.
Free said the night launch will mean losing some visual references that would be available for NASA’s preferred daylight launch attempts, but they still have the use of infrared cameras and radar to track it at launch.
”Just launching at night and a big fire coming out the back is going to help light things up for us too,” Free said, who later added, “We don’t see it as a barrier to getting the data that we need. In the end we’re comfortable launching at night and we feel like we’re going to get the imagery that we need.”
If it launches, the 8.8 million pounds of thrust generated by the SLS rocket will make it the most powerful rocket to launch from Earth, at least until SpaceX gets its new Starship and Super Heavy rocket into orbit, which could come as early as December.
Title or not, NASA’s goal is to provide enough oomph to send the Orion capsule on its way to the moon. The uncrewed mission looks to test extremes on the capsule before the next Artemis mission that would have astronauts along for the ride.
The mission profile calls for Orion to travel on several orbits around the moon, heading out as far as 280,000 miles away from Earth, father than any previous human-rated capsule. On its return trip, the No. 1 goal of NASA is to make sure Orion’s heat shield holds up as it will be traveling at 24,500 mph on re-entry, faster than any previous human-rated capsule, and will generate upward of 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit as it breaks through the atmosphere before a parachute-assisted landing in the Pacific Ocean.
If NASA makes the Nov. 14 launch target, the return would come on Dec. 9 after more than 25 days in space.
That would set up Artemis II, slated for as early as May 2024, that would bring four astronauts on an orbital mission to the moon. Then as early as 2025, Artemis III would bring four passengers to lunar orbit where at least two of them would transfer from Orion to a version of SpaceX’s Starship that’s being designed to take them down to the lunar surface. The duo will include the first woman to ever walk on the moon, and the first time anyone has stepped foot on it since the Apollo 17 moonwalkers left the surface on Dec. 14, 1972.
The threat of Hurricane Ian and the decision to return the rocket to the VAB did allow for teams to recharge the batteries on its self-destruct mechanism as well as the batteries on some of the small satellites that are hitching a ride and will be deployed after Orion breaks away from low-Earth orbit.
“We did recharge them when we got back into the VAB ... and that should get us to where they’re good for about five months,” said Cliff Lanham, senior vehicle operations manager for NASA’s Exploration Ground Systems Program at KSC. “That was a long process of hooking up and recharging them, but they are charged and ready to go.”
Inspection of the hardware showed that minimal work, including some repair of minor damage to the foam and cork that makes up the rocket’s thermal protection system, was needed, but now it’s ready for flight.
“I think we have three good attempts lined up right now on the 14th, 16th and 19th,” Free said. “I think what we’ve learned at every wet dress, our two launch attempts and the tanking test helped build our confidence. The unknowns — I don’t mean that as a cop-out, but that’s certainly something that can get us — I think when we’re in the final throes of the launch count, and one thing and kick us out — one telemetry parameter can kick us out — we want to make sure that we’re prepared for that.”