NASA’s Megarocket Heads for Shelter as Hurricane Ian Approaches

NASA’s Megarocket Heads for Shelter as Hurricane Ian Approaches

With Hurricane Ian threatening the Florida peninsula, NASA has opted to transport its 97.84 m-tall Space Launch System to the Vehicle Assembly Building where the Artemis rocket and Orion spacecraft will be safe from potentially damaging winds.

On Saturday, NASA scrapped its plans to perform the third launch attempt of its SLS rocket due to a tropical storm brewing in the Caribbean. Today, the space agency announced that it would transport the SLS rocket and the Orion spacecraft back to the VAB for shelter in case the storm reaches Kennedy Space Centre. The 6.4-kilometre journey back to the building is slated to begin at 11 p.m. ET.

Graphic: NOAA
Graphic: NOAA

Current projections suggest Kennedy Space Centre will be spared from the worst of Hurricane Ian’s winds, but as these are just predictions, NASA is not taking any chances. SLS and Orion cost $US50 ($69) billion to develop and each launch costs $US4 ($6) billion, so moving these assets from harm’s way is the sensible thing to do. We’ve waited this long for launch, so why not wait a little longer.

When NASA cancelled the launch attempt on Saturday, the space agency was undecided about whether or not it should roll SLS to the VAB. Thankfully, NASA has made the wise decision to transport the rocket back into its giant garage as the storm intensifies on its way to Florida. The tropical system is now officially a hurricane and is expected to hit Florida as early as Tuesday, with hurricane conditions potentially affecting the state on Wednesday, CNN reports.

SLS first made its way to Launch Pad 39B on August 16 to prepare for its very first launch attempt scheduled for later that month. Unfortunately, that launch attempt didn’t exactly go as planned as a faulty sensor gave erroneous engine temperature readings. The rocket’s second attempt to launch earlier this month was also scrubbed, but this time on account of a hydrogen leak, prompting NASA to select September 27 as the next possible date to send the SLS rocket flying.

Things seemed to be looking up for NASA, especially after the space agency was granted the waiver by the U.S. Space Force to proceed with the launch. It seems nature has other plans for the megarocket.

It will take NASA about two days to roll its rocket back to the VAB, so the space agency is really cutting it short on time needed to provide shelter for the heavy-lift launch system — and to keep its employees safe.

“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 in a blog post on Saturday.

Hmm. With rollback starting at 11 p.m. ET tonight, and given that it takes two days to deliver the rocket to the VAB, that really doesn’t afford the employees a heck of a lot of time do address personal safety matters.

With the SLS (hopefully) making it back to the VAB as the storm approaches, NASA could aim for a third launch attempt on October 2 to finally initiate the agency’s return to the Moon. Artemis 1 is the inaugural flight of NASA’s Artemis program, which seeks to land astronauts back on the Moon no earlier than 2025. The Artemis 1 mission is an uncrewed test flight to the Moon and back, and the first integrated flight of SLS and the Orion capsule.

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