NASA goes ahead with ‘Plan A’ for moon rocket launch while it watches the weather

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

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

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

For now, NASA is proceeding with preparations for liftoff next Tuesday from Kennedy Space Center in Florida. “Ideally we’re calling it Plan A, because the cryo test was a success, and right now we don’t have a forecast that violates our weather criteria,” said Mike Bolger, manager of NASA’s Exploration Ground Systems Program.

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

Weather is currently the only concern for the first launch of the SLS. Over the past month, liftoff had to be postponed twice due to issues that cropped up during the fueling process. After the scrubs, NASA replaced some of the seals on the rocket and put “kinder, gentler” procedures into place for fueling.

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

NASA also got clearance from the U.S. Space Force, which manages the range for Florida launches, to delay changing out the batteries on the rocket’s flight termination system. That means the rocket doesn’t have to be rolled back from the launch pad for technical reasons.

If the launch team decides 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 switch out the batteries and perform other maintenance — but mission managers are concerned that the rollback and rollout operations might introduce new risks. And that’s why they’d prefer to 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 looping, weeks-long trip around the moon and back. Sensors hooked up to three mannequins will collect data about radiation exposure, temperature and other environmental factors.

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

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

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