NASA sets next Artemis launch attempt for Wednesday.


NASA is pushing ahead with its next attempt to launch its giant Space Launch System moon rocket, officials said Friday, days after it was battered by Hurricane Nicole as it sat unprotected on its launchpad at the Kennedy Space Center.

Space agency leaders said despite winds in excess of 80 mph, the vehicle suffered no significant damage, allowing them to go ahead with plans to launch in the wee hours Wednesday morning, Eastern time. The two-hour launch window would open at 1:04 a.m.

It would be the third time NASA has attempted to send the Orion crew capsule, without any people aboard, in orbit around the moon, as part of a campaign, known as the Artemis program, to return astronauts to the lunar surface. Two previous launch efforts were postponed because of mechanical issues.

Jim Free, NASA’s associate administrator for exploration systems development, told reporters that wind speeds at the pad as Hurricane Nicole struck the Florida coast on Thursday did not exceed the limits the rocket was designed for, and while there was some minor damage, such as bits of caulk that serve as a sealant coming loose, none of it would force NASA to delay again.

“We design it to be out there,” he said. “And if we didn’t design it to be out there in harsh weather, we picked the wrong launch spot, and we should design the vehicle better.”

NASA has suffered all sorts of setbacks while trying to get its SLS rocket off the ground, adding to the long saga of a program that was born a decade ago. Launch attempts in August and September were marred by faulty engine sensor readings and persistent hydrogen fuel leaks. Then, when NASA officials said they were confident they had finally solved all the problems, they were forced to roll the rocket back to its assembly building as Hurricane Ian approached the Florida peninsula in September.

They rolled the rocket back to its pad at the Kennedy Space Center last week, saying they did not think the storm that became Hurricane Nicole would materialize into one that could threaten the vehicle, which NASA officials have said is designed to withstand wind gusts of 85 mph. As the storm strengthened and approached, NASA leaders decided to keep the SLS on the pad — a decision that meteorologists have criticized.

“We took the decision to keep Orion and SLS at the launchpad very seriously, reviewing the data in front of us and making the best decision possible with high uncertainty in predicting the weather four days out,” NASA said in a statement Thursday. “With the unexpected change to the forecast, return to the Vehicle Assembly Building was deemed to be too risky in high winds, and the team decided the launchpad was the safest place for the rocket to weather the storm.”

In a statement Friday, AccuWeather criticized that decision, saying its meteorologists had “warned of a 60 percent chance that wind gusts could reach up to 85 m.p.h. or greater near the Kennedy Space Center.”

The decision to keep the rocket on the pad “raises serious questions about NASA’s procedures for weather risk mitigation and preparation based upon available forecasts, especially over the weekend given that several days’ notice is required to safely move the rocket back to the VAB,” said Jonathan Porter, AccuWeather’s chief meteorologist.

Free said that by the time it was clear the storm could indeed threaten the Space Coast, it was too late to roll it back, a process that can take half a day and add more wear and tear to the vehicle, especially in high winds.

“We obviously would not have wanted to stay out there,” he said. “The best place for the vehicle in those kinds of [conditions] is the VAB. But we could not make it back to the VAB and be safe.”

He added that had the agency known last week that the storm would become a hurricane, “we probably would have stayed in the VAB. I think that’s safe to say.”

If the Artemis I mission does successfully send Orion safely to the moon and back, NASA intends to follow it up with Artemis II, a flight to lunar orbit with astronauts. That flight is now scheduled for 2024, with a human landing on the surface as soon as 2025.