Even though NASA officials were optimistic the hardware is ready for a potential Artemis I launch attempt Tuesday from Kennedy Space Center, a growing tropical system forecast to hit Florida as a major hurricane next week could force a rollback of the Space Launch System and Orion spacecraft to the protection of the Vehicle Assembly Building.
“We will take this a step at a time,” said NASA’s Tom Whitmeyer, deputy associate administrator for Common Exploration Systems Development. “We have to watch weather and incrementally make decisions as we go along. We’ll watch the direction, the intensity and the timing of the weather pattern. We’ll make the decisions when we make the decisions.”
Tropical Depression Nine formed in the Caribbean on Friday morning, but it’s projected to become a major Category 3 hurricane off of Florida’s southwest coast on Wednesday morning with 115 mph sustained winds, but tropical-storm-force winds could be hitting the Space Coast as early as Tuesday morning.
“While it is a threat to be watched, certainly and watched closely, it’s one also that we can manage as well,” said Space Launch Delta 45 weather officer Mark Burger.
The SLD’s forecast for Tuesday, though, still only gives a launch attempt a 20% chance for favorable conditions noting deep tropical moisture will spill across the spaceport with widespread cloud cover and scattered showers likely during the launch window.
“We’ve got a robust design, but we want to protect the vehicle,” said John Blevins, SLS chief engineer. “So we’re just going to look at what the forecast is and the assurance the percent likelihood of that forecast and certainly we’ll have to make a decision over the next 24 hours.”
The SLS rocket can withstand gusts of 85 mph on the launch pad, officials said, and in the event of a rollback to the VAB can withstand sustained winds of 46 mph.
“It’s a delicate balance … We don’t want to roll back if we don’t have to,” said Mike Bolger, Explorations Program Ground Manager at KSC. “So clearly the uncertainty of this storm makes a difficult decision and makes the timing difficult as well.”
Officials will wait for the 5 p.m. forecast today to see if there are changes, but could trigger a rollback, which would remove both a Tuesday launch opportunity as well as a backup of Oct. 2.
“We hope that we’re going to continue to feel like we’ve got some more time and that we can push the decision to Saturday morning,” Bolger said. “Obviously, the safety and health of our workforce is really important to us and that’s a factor in this decision that we make. So clearly, you know, it’s not simple. We would like to stay out there and we were hopeful that within this launch period we’re gonna get another launch attempt, and that’s why we’re watching the weather so closely.”
A rollback would take about three days to ready the hardware for traveling and make the slow 4-mile trip back to the VAB from Launch Pad 39-B. Previously, officials had said the rolls to and from the VAB can put more stress on the hardware, so if they can, staying at the launch pad is preferable.
“Let’s just be clear, it’s still a machine,” Blevins said.
If weather does allow it to stay, the Tuesday chance begins with a 70-minute window that opens at 11:37 a.m. that would fly on a nearly 40-day mission that would land back on Earth on Nov. 5. The second is Sunday, Oct. 2, a 109-minute window that opens at 2:52 p.m. and fly for roughly a 41-day mission and land on Nov. 11.