NASA investigating “very minor” Artemis hurricane damage

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WASHINGTON — A NASA official says that initial inspections of the Space Launch System rocket and Orion spacecraft turned up only “very minor damage” to the vehicle but declined to speculate on any additional delays for the Artemis 1 mission.

In a tweet Nov. 10, Jim Free, NASA associate administrator for exploration systems development, said remote inspections of the vehicle, using launch pad cameras, showed no major damage caused by the passage of Hurricane Nicole in the early morning hours.

“Camera inspections show very minor damage such as loose caulk and tears in weather coverings,” he wrote. “The team will conduct additional onsite walk down inspections of the vehicle soon.”

He did not state if any repairs, or lost time for pre-launch preparations because of the storm, would further delay the launch. NASA said Nov. 8 it would not attempt a launch Nov. 14 as previously planned, instead targeting Nov. 16 with Nov. 19 as a backup date.

Free defended the agency’s decision to leave the rocket and spacecraft at Launch Complex 39B as Hurricane Nicole made landfall south of the Kennedy Space Center, rather than rolling back to the Vehicle Assembly as it did in September when Hurricane Ian approached the center.

“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 predicting the weather four days out,” he wrote. “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.”

NASA was aware of the potential of a tropical system when it rolled the vehicle back to the pad Nov. 4. At the time, though, forecasts predicted only a 30% chance of it becoming a named storm — a tropical storm or hurricane — with peak wind gusts no higher than 74 kilometers per hour.

Free said that, while at the pad, the vehicle experienced peak wind gusts of 132 kilometers per hour at the 18-meter level at the pad, just under the vehicle’s rated limit of 137 kilometers per hour. However, other sensors at the pad reported gusts as high as 160 kilometers per hour at higher levels. NASA has not disclosed any certifications for wind speeds at higher levels, or the significance of the 18-meter level.