After six eventful weeks at historic Pad 39B, and two fruitless launch attempts, the mighty Space Launch System (SLS) is safely back under cover in the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC), as the NASA and contractor workforce braces for the impending arrival of Hurricane Ian. KSC Director Janet Petro and NASA Associate Administrator for Exploration Systems Development Mission Directorate Jim Free spoke candidly about October/November launch opportunities for Artemis I—the first voyage to lunar distance by a human-capable spacecraft since Apollo 17 in December 1972—as teams overcame a fire in the VAB earlier on Tuesday.
Ian entered the headlines almost ten days ago, tracked by the National Hurricane Center (NHC) from 19 September as a tropical wave to the east of the Windward Islands. It progressed over Trinidad and Tobago, then passed close to South America’s northern coast, and was designated Tropical Depression Nine late last week.
It intensified in ferocity and was initially named “Tropical Storm Ian”, before rapidly intensifying into a high-end Category 3 hurricane. Yesterday, it made landfall in western Cuba.
And by the small hours of Wednesday morning, Hurricane Ian sat about 95 miles (155 kilometers) southwest of Naples, Fla., bringing with it maximum sustained winds of about 120 mph (195 km/h) and gusts up to 150 mph (240 km/h). The hurricane is progressing in a north-northeasterly direction at about 10 mph (17 km/h). A state of emergency was declared late last week by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
The onward march of Ian throws doubt upon SpaceX’s hope of flying its fifth Falcon 9 mission of the month on Friday, with only a 20-percent likelihood of acceptable conditions, according to the 45th Weather Squadron at Patrick Space Force Base. Laden with a stack of Starlink internet communications satellites, bound for low-Earth orbit, the mission is expected to be flown by SpaceX’s veteran B1062 booster, which is set to become the sixth Falcon 9 in a little more than a year to log a tenth launch.
“There is currently an 80-percent chance of sustained winds over tropical storm force for the Spaceport, likely arriving late Wednesday afternoon and potentially continuing through Friday,” noted the 45th in a Tuesday update. “Hurricane Ian is forecast to make landfall along Florida’s west coast on Wednesday or Thursday, before continuing northeastward across Central Florida.
“Dry air will start to wrap into Ian, reducing rain coverage across the Spaceport on Friday, but the slow forward movement of Ian will keep sustained winds elevated into the launch window Friday evening,” it was added. “While overall rain coverage will be lower, outer rainbands and squalls will still be affecting the area.”
Risks of violating the Cumulus Cloud Rule and Surface Electric Fields Rule remain the overarching concern for a Friday launch. However, there may be a slight improvement to 60-percent-favorable on Saturday, as Ian moves further from the Spaceport.
Already, United Launch Alliance (ULA) has announced that its next mission—an Atlas V, laden with the dual-stacked SES-20 and SES-22 geostationary communications satellites for Luxembourg-based SES—has been postponed from 30 September until No Earlier Than (NET) 5:36 p.m. EDT on Tuesday, 4 October, pending Eastern Range approval. The payloads are both stacked atop the Atlas, which is secured inside the Vertical Integration Facility (VIF) at storied Space Launch Complex (SLC)-41 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station.
Also delayed in response to the lingering threat from Ian has been the launch of Dragon Endurance and her Crew-5 astronauts Nicole Mann and Josh Cassada of NASA, Russian cosmonaut Anna Kikina and seasoned spacefarer Koichi Wakata of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), from KSC’s Pad 39A. Previously slated to launch at 12:46 p.m. EDT on Monday, 3 October, launch has moved to no sooner than 12:23 p.m. EDT on Tuesday, 4 October, with a backup opportunity on the 5th.
NASA previously reported that trajectory limitations preclude launching Crew-5 on the 6th, although additional back-to-back opportunities will open up on 7-9 October. Following their arrival at the International Space Station (ISS), Mann, Cassada, Kikina and Wakata will spend about five “direct handover” days with their Crew-4 predecessors Kjell Lindgren, Bob “Farmer” Hines and Jessica Watkins of NASA, together with Italy’s Samantha Cristoforetti, before the latter quartet board Dragon Freedom for return to Earth in mid-October.
With the departure of Crew-4, command of Expedition 68 will pass from Cristoforetti—the first European woman to helm the ISS—to Russian cosmonaut Sergei Prokopyev, who arrived on the station last week with Soyuz MS-22 crewmates Dmitri Petelin and NASA’s Frank Rubio. Current expectations are for Mann, Cassada, Kikina and Wakata to spend about 145 days in space, returning to Earth next spring.
Adding to this gloomy launch picture from the Space Coast, the 322-foot-tall (98-meter) SLS returned undercover at the VAB and was secured inside the cavernous building at 9:15 a.m. EDT Tuesday. Her four-mile (6.4-kilometer) crawl took a little more than ten hours, after “first motion” off Pad 39B shortly past 11 p.m. EDT Monday.
At a press conference yesterday, KSC Director Janet Petro provided an update on the center’s hurricane response and level of preparedness. She explained that the Emergency Decision Team (EDT) has met several times in recent days to discuss the changing posture, as KSC moved into Hurricane Condition III (HURCON III) on Tuesday and teams began securing facilities and infrastructure.
Ms. Petro added that an escalation to HURCON II was anticipated late Tuesday, requiring all non-essential personnel to be released and sent home to prepare for Ian’s arrival. At the same time, around 11:45 a.m. EDT Tuesday a fire associated with a 40-volt electrical panel on a wall in the VAB’s High Bay 3 was reported.
“The notification came when an arc-flash event occurred at a connector on an electrical panel in High Bay 3,” NASA reported. “A spark landed on a rope marking the boundary of the work area. The rope began to smolder, workers pulled the alarm and employees evacuated the building safely.”
The incident occurred on the third floor of F-tower at the Mobile Launcher (ML) power connections. “Technicians shut down power to the panel,” NASA reported, “and the center’s emergency responders declared the VAB safe for employees to return to work.”
Ms. Petro explained yesterday that it was unclear if the fire resulted from an issue with a breaker or an electrical short, but the VAB was lightly staffed with “only a handful of people” at the time and evacuated promptly. The incident occurred “a good distance” away from the SLS stack, Ms. Petro added, and the vehicle was never at any risk.
The return of the SLS to the safety of the VAB comes after six weeks, two fruitless launch attempts and a cryogenic tanking test at Pad 39B to resolve a seemingly intractable hydrogen leak. Despite hopes after the cryogenic tanking test to proceed towards a launch on 27 September, that ultimately came to nought in light of Ian’s approach.
According to Mr. Free, it became “pretty clear” last Saturday that NASA would be forced to forgo a launch on the 27th, as “the weather was pretty rough”. Nevertheless, teams continued to focus on the next available opportunity on Sunday, 2 October, before opting instead for a rollback to the VAB.
The ten-hour return trek for the huge rocket was driven by the dual risks posed by lightning and winds, which necessitated a departure from Pad 39B during one of two “windows”: the first of which opened early Monday morning and the second late Monday night, into the small hours of Tuesday. The final decision was made on Sunday evening and was based upon the capabilities of what environmental factors the Artemis I stack could handle during rollback.
According to Mr. Free, it became apparent by early Monday that wind-duration and hurricane-force predictions for KSC in the coming days had increased by at least a factor of two. Teams met that morning and agreed to roll back to the VAB on Monday night under Design Specification for Natural Environments (DSNE) requirements. He explained that they “waited about as long as we could” to ensure the safety of the SLS before returning to the assembly building.
Looking ahead, teams will replace the Flight Termination System (FTS) batteries, whose lifetime was set at 25 days, but extended through negotiation and consent of the Eastern Range. Changing out the batteries, said Mr. Free, is “not simple, but team understands how to do it”. The twin Solid Rocket Boosters (SRBs) possess their own FTS batteries, with the Core Stage batteries accessed via the inter-tank.
There is an opportunity to launch Artemis I on 17 October and Mr. Free explained that “we’re not going to take anything off the table”, but with the current hurricane situation and efforts to secure the vehicle, keep purge systems in place and ensure the safety of the NASA/contractor workforce, turning around in time for a 17 October launch would pose “a challenge”. It looks more likely that the mission will now aim for November, which is characterized by multiple launch opportunities in the hours of darkness.
Mr. Free stressed that the preference is to launch in daylight, as “visuals from our long-range tracking are of benefit to us”, but there remain “some ways to view the vehicle” if the first SLS were to fly at night. He did not rule out a nighttime launch and added that the pad processing flow has been optimized—through differing sequences and parallels and changes in the movement of equipment—by Artemis I Launch Director Charlie Blackwell-Thompson and her team, to contract from a ten-day flow to a flow of just seven or eight days.