HISTORY WRITTEN FOR CAS NEWS & USED WITH PERMISSION
NASA officials on Monday reviewed the threat posed by hurricane-damaged insulation on the agency’s Artemis lunar rocket and cleared the launch of the $4.1 billion booster “as is” early Wednesday for launch a long-delayed flight to boost an unmanned Orion crew capsule around the moon and back.
Even if more strips of caulking-like “RTV” insulation release during the Space Launch System rocket’s ascent through space, engineering analysis has shown that the material is not massive or dense enough to cause significant damage even if a piece tears off and hits one of the two lower stages or strap boosters, the engineers concluded.
And so, as the countdown continued into its final hours, NASA’s mission management team unanimously approved the continuation of a third test launch at 1:04 a.m. EST Wednesday, l opening of a two-hour window.
“I asked if there were any dissenting opinions, there were none,” said Mike Sarafin, the Artemis 1 mission manager. “We accepted that flight justification. … So there is no change in our plan to try to launch 16.”
The 322-foot-tall Space Launch System rocket, the most powerful NASA has ever built, is the backbone of the agency’s Artemis lunar program, capable of propelling Orion lunar craft and other components directly into lunar orbit for a rendezvous with a planned space station and lunar lander.
But the first SLS to roll off the assembly line has been plagued by hydrogen fuel leaks and other issues that have halted several refueling tests and two launch attempts since the vehicle was rolled out for the first time on launch pad 39B last March, over 240 a few days ago.
After coming up with a “softer, gentler” technique for fueling the rocket to minimize any leakage, engineers brought the SLS back to the pad on November 3 to prepare for another test launch, despite the planned development of a subtropical storm in the Caribbean.
This storm eventually intensified and became Hurricane Nicole, but by then it was too late to bring the rocket back to the protection of its assembly building. Instead, it withstood hurricane-force winds and rain on the pad, exposed to the elements.
Surprisingly, perhaps, the SLS rocket and launch pad suffered no major damage. But engineers found that a 10ft section of RTV insulation covering an indentation between the Orion crew capsule and the base of its protective nose cone had delaminated and peeled off into smaller pieces in the high winds. .
This part of the rocket cannot be reached at the launch pad, prompting detailed engineering analysis to determine what threat, if any, might exist if an additional RTV drifts away during flight.
“The problem with RTV is that we could have a small piece or a big piece come loose, it could hit the right spot in the airflow and come down and hit the vehicle and cause damage,” Jim Free, systems manager NASA exploration team, told CBS News in an interview.
“It could either catastrophically lose the vehicle or degrade performance in some way. And we have to ground them all before we continue.
The concern was similar in some ways to discussions leading up to the launch of the shuttle Columbia in 2003, when a large piece of insulating foam broke off from its external tank and fatally damaged the orbiter’s left wing. . In this case, the pre-flight analysis did not adequately assess the risk with catastrophic results.
“I think I’d be dumb to say that (Columbia) isn’t on everyone’s mind,” Free said. “The transport analysis we do is rooted in the learning we had from the space shuttle.”
With lessons learned from Columbia in mind, engineers performed a rigorous analysis and concluded that SLS isolation was not a credible threat. With forecasters predicting a 90% chance of good weather, the launch could well come down to whether the previous issues powering the giant rocket have in fact been resolved.