Update: NASA’s Artemis I To Remain Outdoors As Nicole Approaches


Even as news hit that the Powerball jackpot winner is in for a $2.4 billion payout, NASA is wagering just more than twice that amount that its Artemis I mission spacecraft (valued at $4.1 billion) will remain safe on its launch pad from now-subtropical storm Nicole. The agency announced, “Based on current forecast data [as of Monday], managers have determined the Space Launch System rocket and Orion will remain at Launch Pad 39B.”

But forecasts for Nicole’s landfall on Florida’s east coast have changed, indicating potentially hurricane-strength winds, and more risk associated with leaving the rocket exposed. According to a Tuesday (Nov. 8) article on the Ars Technica website, in anticipation of September’s Hurricane Ian landfall, NASA chose to shelter the rocket, the Orion spacecraft, and the mobile launch tower within the Vehicle Assembly Building. “At the time,” the website reported, “according to the National Hurricane Center, there was just a 6 percent chance of hurricane-force sustained winds (64 knots or greater) at Kennedy Space Center.” The assembly can withstand gusts of up to 74.1 knots, according to chief designer John Blevins.

In addition to the time factor (it normally takes two days to fully prepare the rocket assembly for movement), another intriguing reason for the decision could be that moving it back and forth could be more risky than leaving it outside in the storm. According to Ars Technica, “When it computes risk factors for the Artemis I launch vehicle, NASA has a certain budget for rollouts. The rocket has now been out to the pad on four separate occasions since this spring. While NASA has not confirmed this, according to a source, NASA has just one remaining roll in its budget.”


As of Thursday night (November 10), NASA reported only superficial damage to the Artemis I moon rocket from Hurricane Nicole, according to Jim Free, associate administrator for NASA’s Exploration Systems Development Mission Directorate. He described the damage as “loose caulk and tears in weather coverings,” adding in a statement, “The team will conduct additional onsite walk down inspections on the vehicle soon.”

Designed to withstand winds of 85 mph (74.4 knots) on its launch pad, the rocket assembly was exposed to winds that might have been greater than that, though the precise exposure is unclear. Gusts of up to 100 mph (87 knots) were recorded by sensors on towers on the launch site, but those sensors were located at the 467-foot level. The rocket itself is 332 feet in height. Readings at lower levels indicated the winds there were likely within the 85-mph limit.

Free said in the statement, “We took the decision to keep Orion and SLS at the launch pad very seriously, reviewing the data in front of us and making the best decision possible with high uncertainty in prediction [of] the weather four days out.”

Addressing a significant late upgrade to the forecast intensity of what was then Tropical Storm Nicole (originally expected to be 25 knots with gusts of up to 40 knots), he said, “With the unexpected change to the forecast, returning to the Vehicle Assembly Building was deemed to be too risky in high winds, and the team decided the launch pad was the safest place for the rocket to weather the storm.”

Mark Phelps
Mark Phelps is a senior editor at AVweb. He is an instrument rated private pilot and former owner of a Grumman American AA1B and a V-tail Bonanza.

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  1. Problems, delays, faults, and it all continues, now a Hurricane is on its way with a rocket tower designed for 74.1 knots, Hurricanes usually bring winds over 100 knots, so there is a good chance the rocket will be on the ground demolished. Time to rethink the space waste of money at 4.1 Billion USD and shut NASA down. Musk could have completed the operation for probably half the cost and made a profit without failure. Crazy waste of money.

  2. If the budget for a “roll” is truly an issue, this scenario is a perfect snapshot of Federal bureaucracy mindset. Does “one more roll” mean one way to or from the pad, or round-trip? “We can’t afford to fire up the crawler, so we’ll take our chances on eating $4.1B. Makes sense!” If the worst happens, all we’ll get is NASA telling taxpayers some version of “Oops! Silly me!” as a simulation of accountability, same as typical of every agency funded by tax dollars.
    As an alternative, they could launch it now, avoiding the problem entirely.

    • He’s not talking about a cost budget. He’s talking that the structure is only qualified for so many rollouts, as it places stresses in the vehicle. Therefore, if they exceed that number, they would have to go through an engineering requalification.

    • Did they not know that there is a summer/fall hurricane season in Florida that would damage unprotected equipment? Remember it is not THAT the wind is blowing, but WHAT the wind is blowing.

  3. I believe the term ”budget” in this article is not referring to dollars. ‘Budget’ in this context is referring to the number of trips between the Vehicle Assembly Building and the launch pad which NASA has determined the SLS can safely withstand. Each trip causes stress on the vehicle and they have decided that after 5 trips, the accumulated stress causes a risk that is no longer within their acceptable level.

    However, I find this much more upsetting than if it was a dollar limit. If the source in the original Ars Technica article is accurate, there is a very real, significant risk that the vehicle could be rendered unusable just by making 5 trips between the VAB and the launch pad!

    NASA does not appear to have designed a vehicle nor or they managing the program with limiting the potential for trips between VAB and the launch pad as a critical goal.

    Just a few of many examples:
    – Using finite life batteries in a critical system which would require a trip to the VAB to replace
    – Stopping testing at the pad when a failure was discovered, rather than continuing the testing program to discover potential additional system failures (resulted in an additional trip)
    – A design which requires a long time at the pad for testing and preparations prior to launch, despite the location being located in an area with a significant risk for exposure to weather which exceeds that for which the vehicle was designed to withstand. (Resulting in a trip to avoid weather).
    – A design that did not engineer for the corrosive effect of the well understood humid, salty Florida air. (Resulting in a trip to repair corrosion damaged valves)

    • I suspect that, if they exceed their rollout “budget,” they would be able to extend with some sort of engineering analysis. Just like they’ve left the booster engines stacked far longer than the 1 year maximum that they had been previously qualified.

      The corroded valve issue was related to Boeing’s Starliner, not SLS, I believe.

  4. At this point, all the teeth-gnashing about moving it or not is moot, since the move takes almost 24 hours and the storm will hit the Florida coast tonight. Unless something unexpected happens, it will be a minimal hurricane that the vehicle should be able to withstand. I’m not making excuses for NASA, but one of their biggest problems is Congress and its constant use of NASA as a political football. Some of Douglas’s list of grievances above can be laid at the feet of contractors who should know better, but NASA certainly must bear some responsibility. Both they and the contractors have been at the space game for a very long time and still seem to be making the same expensive mistakes.