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.”