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Expected hurricane prompts another Artemis moonshot launch delay

With Tropical Storm (soon-to-be Hurricane) Nicole barreling toward Florida, NASA managers decided Tuesday to delay the planned launch of the Artemis 1 moon rocket from Monday to Wednesday, suspending flight preparations amid work to ready the spaceport — and the rocket — for high winds and rain.

The new target date "will allow the workforce to tend to the needs of their families and homes, and provide sufficient logistical time to get back into launch status following the storm," NASA said in a statement.

Assuming Nicole causes no major damage to ground systems or the 322-foot-tall Space Launch System rocket, which will remain exposed to the elements atop pad 39B, NASA hopes to start the countdown at 1:54 a.m. EST Monday, setting the stage for blastoff on an unpiloted test flight at 1:04 a.m. Wednesday.

The SLS moon rocket was hauled to launch pad 39B at the Kennedy Space Center last week to ready it for launch November 14 on the unpiloted Artemis 1 moon mission. With an expected hurricane on the way, NASA managers opted to secure the rocket at the pad and to delay launch two days. NASA file photo

A backup launch opportunity is available on Nov. 19 at 1:45 a.m. In both cases, NASA will have two-hour launch windows to work with

Agency managers debated whether to roll the huge rocket back to the protection of the Vehicle Assembly Building, but after assessing the forecast, they decided "the safest option for the launch hardware was to keep the Space Launch System rocket and Orion spacecraft secured at the pad."

The rocket is designed to withstand winds as high as 85 miles an hour at the 60-foot level with an additional, unspecified, safety margin on top of that.

"Current forecasts predict the greatest risks at the pad are high winds that are not expected to exceed the SLS design," NASA said. "The rocket is designed to withstand heavy rains at the launch pad and the spacecraft hatches have been secured to prevent water intrusion."

The Space Launch System rocket is the most powerful ever built for NASA, a mammoth launcher that will generate a ground-shaking 8.8 million pounds of thrust at liftoff from four shuttle-era main engines and two extended strap-on solid-fuel boosters.

The goal of the Artemis 1 mission is to propel and unpiloted Orion crew capsule on a long trajectory around the moon, ending with a high-speed re-entry and splashdown in the Pacific Ocean. If the flight goes well, NASA hopes to launch four astronauts around the moon in 2024, followed by the first in a series of landings starting in 2025 or 2026.

The first four SLS rockets cost $4.1 billion each, according to NASA's inspector general, and getting the first one to the pad and into space has been a challenge, with multiple fuel leaks and other problems delaying repeated tests and two recent launch attempts.

The rocket was first rolled to the pad for an initial fueling test last March, more than 235 days ago, and has now made seven trips to and from the VAB while engineers dealt with a steady stream of frustrating glitches.

But NASA managers say the rocket should be ready to go this time around, thanks to lessons learned, repaired quick-disconnect fittings and revised fueling procedures intended to minimize or eliminate any additional hydrogen leakage.

But first, the SLS has to get through one of the final named storms of this year's hurricane season. Any major wind or water damage almost certainly would trigger yet another delay.

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