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The multibillion-dollar space launch system rocket that suffered hours of impacts from Hurricane Nicole suffered minor damage but is still on track for liftoff next week, a seemingly unprecedented turnaround for an all-new vehicle tasked with piloting NASA’s most important mission in decades.
On Friday, agency officials said Kennedy Space Center crews were continuing to inspect the huge rocket and its ground support equipment ahead of launch, currently scheduled for 1:04 a.m. EST on Wednesday, Nov. 16. That marks less than a week between Nicole’s worst impacts and launch day.
“Right now, there’s nothing stopping us from reaching 16,” NASA associate administrator Jim Free told reporters during a Friday briefing. “We still have work to do.”
The main concern – that the wind gusts would have exceeded the 85 mph constraint SLS was certified for – almost materialized this week, but not quite. Free said sensors around pad 39B recorded peak wind gusts of 82 mph when Nicole passed early Thursday. Other concerns, like the potential for devastating storm surges and flooding, have also not materialized.
So far, Free said, teams have found minor damage to sealants around the Orion spacecraft attached to the top of the rocket, umbilicals misaligned by winds, and other items like water intrusion into the rocket. support tower crew access arm. No element of damage appears to be a dealbreaker for next week’s uncrewed Artemis I launch to the moon and back.
The fact that NASA ended up in a position where the rocket had to sit on the cushion during a hurricane and not in the Vehicle Assembly Building, however, has caused some head-scratching – and others vocally opposed to the decision.
NASA’s decision to deploy
The SLS is assembled or stacked in KSC’s iconic Vehicle Assembly Building. Late last week, officials gave the “go” to begin taxiing the rocket four miles to Pad 39B, a process that takes about 11 hours and strains its components along the way.
NASA officials were aware of a small weather system developing near the Bahamas prior to its deployment, but forecasts at the time indicated a low probability of development into a full storm. Hurricane season ends on Nov. 30, and it’s unusual for Atlantic systems to strengthen quickly toward the end.
But Nicole bucked the trend and started growing almost immediately after the rollout ended last Friday. Over the weekend, it was clear that NASA needed to make some kind of decision about which system should become at least a tropical storm.
But it was already too late: as it takes up to three days to prepare for roll operations, forecasts showed that the 46 mph tailwind limit would have been violated en route to the VAB. Forecasts, however, showed that keeping the rocket on the pad would probably be the safest bet, as SLS is certified for winds of up to 85 mph at the 60-foot mark. It was not intended that Nicole would become powerful enough to break this limit.
“I know there are questions about our decision to deploy or our decision to stay,” Free said. “We had very focused and very deliberate meetings (on both options) before we got started.”
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“I can assure you…we talked a lot about the risk of both and the analysis that went into that, so we decided to stay,” Free said.
Free said the teams obviously would have preferred to keep the $4.1 billion mission rocket in the VAB, but the less risky decision was to stay on the pad.
Peak winds reached 82 mph at 60 feet, but sensors at the Lightning Tower recorded gusts reaching 100 mph at 457 feet above ground. That means NASA stayed within its limits at the 60-foot mark.
“All measurements taken show no exceedance of these limits,” Free said. “Loads will vary (at different heights around the pad)…none of these have been exceeded for our certification limits.”
If inspections continue, Wednesday’s Artemis I launch will launch a 25-day uncrewed mission to lunar orbit and then back to Earth. The Orion capsule taking off atop SLS is set to crash into the Pacific Ocean on December 11.
If all goes according to plan, this will pave the way for Artemis II to run a similar mission profile but with astronauts in Orion. Next, Artemis III aims to put two astronauts on the surface of the moon before 2030.
SLS and the Winds of Nicole
Storms of any intensity are problematic for spaceflight. Equipment machined to strict specifications and reliability must not only be maintained, but also have a limited lifespan.
Almost every operation, from deployment to refueling, has an impact on SLS hardware. When it comes to transporting the rocket, for example, the rocket is designed for 11 rollers, five of which were used.
Hurricane Nicole and its powerful winds posed another problem: the angle at which the pressure is applied. Rockets are generally excellent and handle pressure vertically, but much like an empty soda can, pressure from the sides is much more likely to cause damage.
“The cell’s structures are built to be strong in certain directions,” said Phil Metzger, a planetary scientist at the University of Central Florida who has worked on space shuttle processing teams. “It’s the kind of thing you do on a rocket because mass is super important.”
In other words, because every pound counts, rockets don’t need to be pressure resistant from all angles, only those that count during flight. The boron tubes used during the shuttle program, for example, were incredibly strong from a top-down perspective.
“But if you put sideloading on it, you might crack it and break it,” Metzger said.
In general, inspections following a major event like a hurricane could cause significant delays because there is no quick way to scan the rocket for damage. Metzger said the 85 mph limit likely had a safety margin built in, so the chances of SLS sustaining major damage were likely low.
“It seems to me that NASA really doesn’t care too much about it and has a lot of headroom (above the certified thresholds),” he said.
But if something goes wrong, everything changes — and Congress will want answers.
“There’s always a cover element,” Metzger said. “You want to believe you’re making decisions that are the right thing, but in the space program there’s always an element of realization that if you’re wrong, you could be called before Congress to testify.”
Part of the inspection process is to generate documentation showing that every reasonable effort has been made to not only find the defects, but also to correct them.
“We used to say this in the shuttle program, ‘I don’t want to be the one called to Congress for this. “”
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Space Launch System (SLS) Infographic
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