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NASA’s moon rocket survives storm and is still set for historic launch

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NASA‘s megarocket for the moon will lift off on Nov. 16 as planned, despite some minor damage from Hurricane Nicole at its Florida launchpad.

The U.S. space agency rolled the Space Launch System to its pad on Nov. 4 in anticipation of another launch attempt next week. The 322-foot behemoth is intended to punch the new Orion crew capsule into space for an inaugural test flight.

As Tropical Storm Nicole approached the Atlantic Coast, NASA made the risky decision to ride out the weather in place, rather than haul the $4.1 billion vehicle four miles back to its enormous hangar. Following an inspection of the rocket, the ground crews will spend the next few days making “minor repairs” to the rocket, with the hope of still trying to get off the ground in the early hours of Nov. 16.

“If we knew on the night before we were rolling out that it was going to be a hurricane, we probably would have stayed in the [hangar],” Jim Free, NASA’s associate administrator of exploration ground systems, said on a call with reporters on Friday. “I represent a team… but I think, in this case, I can probably speak for them.”

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During the storm, the rocket endured up to 82 mph wind at the 60-foot level, according to sensors monitoring the hardware at the pad, but mission managers said SLS was built to withstand even more severe gusts.

The damage included some caulk coming loose on the spacecraft, a tear in an engine rain cover, a misaligned umbilical connection to the spacecraft, and a harness for an electrical umbilical that could require replacement.

The two-hour launch window opens at 1:04 a.m. Wednesday. It’s the fifth launch date NASA has scheduled for the mission this year, two of which actually made it to countdowns.

“If we knew on the night before we were rolling out that it was going to be a hurricane, we probably would have stayed in the [hangar].”

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NASA’s Artemis I sets out to be the agency’s first deep space flight of a capsule built to carry astronauts in a half-century. If all goes according to plan, Orion will travel more than a quarter-million miles from Earth, including a 40,000-mile swing past the moon, on a whirling journey. No one will be inside the spacecraft for this ride, but a successful uncrewed test flight would clear the way for astronauts on Artemis II. That flight is currently scheduled for as early as 2024.

The first Artemis attempt in late August was waived off after the launch crew discovered an engine that appeared not to be cooling fuel properly. After an investigation, NASA determined the problem was an inaccurate sensor. During the second try in early September, launch controllers encountered a large fuel leak at the base of the rocket that couldn’t be stopped.

Then, hurricane season reared its head. NASA was forced to roll back the rocket to protect it from Hurricane Ian at the end of September. It reemerged this month after repairs, but just before Nicole started swirling. Mission managers decided it was safer to leave the Statue of Liberty-sized rocket at the pad than move it amid high winds.

When asked if the agency is more comfortable taking certain risks with this rocket than it would be if the spacecraft were carrying astronauts, Free said: “What I’d say is we’re never going to get to Artemis II if Artemis I isn’t successful.”

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