Cosmic Space

NASA rolls out its moon rocket for next launch attempt

NASA’s biggest rocket is on its Florida launch pad once more, awaiting liftoff on a milestone test mission around the moon.

The 322-foot-tall, 3.5-million-pound Space Launch System rocket rolled out overnight from the Vehicle Assembly Building at Kennedy Space Center, reaching Launch Complex 39B at around 8:30 a.m. ET (5:30 a.m. PT) today after a crawl that lasted nearly nine hours.

Launch teams will continue configuring the SLS rocket and its Orion capsule for the start of the uncrewed Artemis 1 mission, now targeted for no earlier than 1:04 a.m. ET on Nov. 16 (10:04 p.m. PT Nov. 13). That time frame is dependent on being able to ride out the effects of Tropical Storm Nicole and getting everything in place after the storm.

NASA had planned to begin the weeks-long test mission in August — but a series of technical glitches, followed by the threat from Hurricane Ian, forced mission planners to bring the rocket back into the Vehicle Assembly Building. During the weeks that followed, engineers worked their way through a list of maintenance tasks that had been put off.

If liftoff can’t take place during Nov. 16’s two-hour launch window, due to weather or technical concerns, Nov. 19 would be a backup date.

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

The Artemis 1 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 or so, and then for an Artemis 3 moon landing that could happen as early as 2025.

Update for 3:20 p.m. PT Nov. 8: NASA decided to schedule the next launch attempt for Nov. 16, rather than the previously planned date of Nov. 14, due to concerns about Tropical Storm Nicole. After assessing the expected weather conditions and the options for a rollback, the space agency opted to leave the rocket on its launch pad, batten down the hatches, and have a “ride-out team” monitor conditions at Kennedy Space Center.

“Teams are poised to resume work as soon as weather and Kennedy center status allows,” NASA said in an online advisory. “Once back on site, technicians will perform walkdowns and inspections at the pad to assess the status of the rocket and spacecraft as soon as practicable.”

By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributor to GeekWire and Universe Today, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," past president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing.

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