NASA Goes Forward With ‘Plan A’ For Lunar Rocket Launch While Watching The Weather

NASA’s Space Launch System is on its Florida launch pad. (NASA photo/Ben Smegelsky)

After a successful test of the cryogenic fueling system for its heavy-lift Space Launch System rocket, NASA says weather forecasts will determine whether it makes a third attempt to launch its Artemis 1 mission around the moon next week.

This isn’t just any weather: it’s a tropical depression in the Caribbean Sea that could become a hurricane hitting the Florida coast.

For now, NASA is continuing preparations for liftoff next Tuesday from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. “Ideally, we call it Plan A, because the cryogenic test was a success and, at this time, we don’t have a forecast that violates our meteorological criteria,” said Mike Bolger, manager of NASA’s Earth Systems Exploration Program.

That plan could change, depending on updated National Weather Service computer models for the storm system known as Tropical Depression 9. Even setting aside the threat of a hurricane, the outlook isn’t great: A forecast issued earlier today lays out the chances. of unacceptable weather at 80%, with clouds and precipitation among the concerns. Mission administrators will announce on Saturday whether they will continue with Plan A and we will update this report with their decision.

Weather is currently the only concern for the first launch of the SLS. During the last month, the takeoff had to be postponed twice due to problems that arose during the refueling process. After the washdowns, NASA replaced some of the rocket’s seals and implemented “kinder and gentler” procedures for fueling.

The repairs and updated procedures were tested on Wednesday. All of the rocket’s propellant tanks were full, leading NASA’s SLS program chief engineer John Blevins to say it was a “very successful day.”

NASA also obtained authorization from the US Space Force, which manages launch ranges in Florida, to delay changing the rocket’s flight termination system batteries. That means the rocket doesn’t have to back up from the launch pad for technical reasons.

If the launch team decides that stormy weather will make it too risky to keep the SLS on the pad, Plan B would involve moving the 5.5 million-pound, 321-foot-tall rocket back to the Vehicle Assembly Building. That would give NASA a chance to change batteries and perform other maintenance, but mission managers are concerned that pushback and deployment operations could present new risks. And that’s why they would rather launch the rocket next week if they can.

The inaugural launch of the Space Launch System, the most powerful rocket ever built for NASA, is just the beginning of NASA’s Artemis 1 mission. The SLS will send an uncrewed Orion capsule on a weeks-long circular journey around the moon and back. Sensors attached to three mannequins will collect data on radiation exposure, temperature and other environmental factors.

Orion will also carry an experimental Alexa-style voice assistant, created by Amazon in partnership with NASA, Lockheed Martin and Cisco, that could be used on future manned missions.

If Artemis 1 is successful, that would set the stage for a crewed mission around the moon known as Artemis 2 in 2024, and then an Artemis 3 moon landing that could happen in 2025.

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