December 3, 2023


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NASA delays moon rocket launch as Tropical Storm Ian nears

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NASA delays moon rocket launch as Tropical Storm Ian nears

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

With Tropical Storm Ian approaching the Florida coast, NASA has decided not to go forward with its third attempt to launch its heavy-lift Space Launch System moon rocket on Tuesday.

Yet to be decided: whether the rocket will stay on the pad to ride out the storm, or whether it will be rolled back to the Vehicle Assembly Building at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.

If mission managers decide to move the rocket inside the building for safety’s sake, that could delay the start of NASA’s Artemis 1 round-the-moon mission until November. Liftoff had already been postponed twice due to technical issues with the rocket’s fueling system — issues that NASA says have now been resolved.

The decision to wave off Tuesday’s launch attempt was made this morning, and the launch team will decide whether to proceed with a rollback on Sunday. If there is a rollback, the rocket’s hours-long journey from the pad would begin late Sunday or early Monday. (We’ll update this report to reflect what NASA decides.)

“The agency is taking a step-wise approach to its decision making process to allow the agency to protect its employees by completing a safe roll in time for them to address the needs of their families,” NASA explained in a blog posting, “while also protecting for the option to press ahead with another launch opportunity in the current window if weather predictions improve.”

The National Weather Service is continuing to track Tropical Storm Ian’s route as it plows through the Caribbean Sea. Current projections show the storm heading for Florida from the southwest, but the projections have been trending westward over time — fueling hopes that Kennedy Space Center won’t face Ian’s full fury.

If the SLS can weather the storm on the launch pad, NASA could theoretically make its next launch attempt in a week or so. But if there’s a rollback, NASA would conduct battery maintenance tasks that have so far been put off. That would probably require several weeks of further postponement.

The inaugural launch of the Space Launch System, the most powerful rocket ever built for NASA, would mark the start of NASA’s Artemis 1 mission — a spaceflight that’s been more than a decade and billions of dollars in the making.

The mission calls for the SLS to 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.

This is an updated version of a report first published at 1:52 p.m. PT Sept. 24.

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