NASA cleared the Artemis moon rocket for launch early Wednesday
NASA managers on Monday reviewed the threat posed by hurricane-damaged insulation on the Artemis lunar rocket and approved the $4.1 billion launch for an “as is” launch early Wednesday. The launch would kick off a long-delayed flight to boost the unmanned Orion crew around the moon and back.
Although multiple strips of “RTV” sealing insulation are released during a Space Launch System rocket’s ascent into space, engineering analysis has shown that the material is not massive or dense enough to cause any significant damage even if the piece hits one of them. two lower stages or boosters, the engineers concluded.
And so, as the countdown continues into its final hours, NASA’s mission control team unanimously approved a third launch attempt Wednesday at 1:04 a.m. EST, opening a two-hour window.
“I asked if there were any dissenting opinions, there weren’t any,” said Mike Sarafin, Artemis 1 mission manager. “We accepted that rationale for the flight … So there’s no change in our plan to try to launch on the 16th.”
The 322-foot-tall Space Launch System rocket
The most powerful ever built by NASA is the mainstay of the agency’s Artemis lunar program, capable of sending Orion lunar probes and other components directly into lunar orbit for rendezvous with the planned space station and lunar lander.
But the first SLS to roll off the assembly line has been plagued by hydrogen fuel leaks and other glitches that have interrupted several refueling tests and two launch attempts since the vehicle was first launched on launchpad 39B last March, more than 240 days.
After coming up with a “kinder, gentler” technique for fueling the rocket to minimize potential leaks, engineers rolled the SLS back onto the pad on November 3 to prepare for another launch attempt, despite the predicted development of a subtropical storm in the Caribbean.
That storm eventually intensified and became Hurricane Nicole,
But by then it was too late to transport the rocket back to the protection of its assembly building. Instead, hurricane-force winds and rain pelted the mat, exposed to the elements.
Perhaps surprisingly, the SLS rocket and launch pad suffered no major damage. But engineers discovered a 10-foot-long section of RTV insulation covering the cavity between Orion’s crew pod and the lower protective nose cone, which had separated in high winds and pulled away into smaller pieces.
This part of the missile cannot be reached on the launch pad, necessitating a detailed engineering analysis to determine what threat, if any, might exist if any additional RTVs were to be withdrawn during flight.
“That could either catastrophically lose the vehicle or reduce performance in some way.
We need to knock them all down before we move on.”
The concerns were similar in some ways to the discussions that preceded the launch of Space Shuttle Columbia in 2003 when a large piece of foam insulation broke loose from its outer tank and fatally damaged the orbiter’s left wing. In such a case, the pre-flight analysis did not adequately assess the risk with disastrous results.” the traffic analysis we’re doing is rooted in the learnings we got from the space shuttle.”With the lessons learned from Columbia in mind, engineers performed a rigorous analysis and concluded that the SLS’s insulation did not pose a credible threat. With forecasters predicting a 90 percent chance of good weather, the launch may well hinge on whether earlier problems with the giant rocket’s propulsion have in fact been resolved.