NASA has cleared the Artemis moon rocket for launch on Wednesday3 min read
NASA managers examined the threat posed by hurricane-damaged insulation on the Artemis moon rocket on Monday and certified the $4.1 billion booster for launch “as is” on Wednesday. The launch would begin a long-delayed mission to propel an unpiloted Orion crew capsule around the moon and back.
Engineers found that even if more strips of the caulk-like “RTV” insulation peel away during the Space Launch System rocket’s ascent to space, the material is not huge or dense enough to do substantial damage even if a piece hits one of the two lower stages or strap-on boosters.
As the countdown neared its end, NASA’s mission management team unanimously agreed to proceed with a third launch attempt at 1:04 a.m. EST Wednesday, the start of a two-hour window.
“I inquired if there were any dissenting perspectives, and there were none,” said Mike Sarafin, mission manager for Artemis 1. “That flight logic was accepted by us. So our intention to launch on the 16th remains unchanged.”
The 322-foot-tall Space Launch System rocket is the linchpin of NASA’s Artemis moon program, capable of boosting Orion moonships and other components directly into lunar orbit for rendezvous with a planned space station and lunar lander.
However, since the spacecraft was wheeled out to launch pad 39B for the first time in March, more than 240 days ago, it has been plagued with hydrogen fuel leaks and other malfunctions that have disrupted multiple fueling tests and two launch attempts.
Engineers brought the SLS back out to the pad on November 3 to prepare for another launch attempt, despite the formation of a subtropical storm in the Caribbean, after devising a “kinder, gentler” strategy for fueling the rocket to minimise leaking.
That storm eventually intensified into Hurricane Nicole, but it was too late to bring the rocket back to the safety of its assembly building. Instead, it was exposed to the elements while riding out hurricane-force winds and rain on the pad.
Surprisingly, neither the SLS rocket nor the launch pad sustained serious damage. Engineers discovered, however, that a 10-foot section of RTV insulation covering an indentation between the Orion crew capsule and the base of its protective nose cone had delaminated and been pulled away in smaller pieces by the high winds.
That section of the rocket cannot be accessed from the launch pad, necessitating a thorough engineering analysis to determine what threat, if any, might exist if any additional RTV detached during flight.
“The risk with RTV is that a tiny or large piece may come off, reach the correct location in the airflow, drop down and strike the vehicle and do damage,” Jim Free, NASA’s director of exploration systems, told CBS News in an interview.
“This could result in the vehicle being destroyed or degraded in some way. And we have to run all of those to the ground before we can proceed.”
Some of the concerns were similar to those raised prior to the launch of the shuttle Columbia in 2003, when a big piece of foam insulation fell off its external tank and killed the orbiter’s left wing. In that situation, the danger was not appropriately assessed during the pre-flight analysis.
“I believe it would be ridiculous for me to claim (Columbia) isn’t on everyone’s radar,” Free said. “The transportation study we’re performing is based on what we learned from the space shuttle.”
Engineers conducted a thorough analysis, keeping Columbia’s lessons in mind, and concluded that SLS insulation was not a credible threat. With forecasters predicting a 90 percent chance of good weather, the launch may well come down to whether previous fueling issues with the massive rocket have been resolved.
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