NASA’s mighty new moon rocket damaged its launch pad and blew open launch tower elevator doors during its maiden liftoff last week.
Artemis 1the first flight of Artemis programspear early Wednesday morning (Nov. 16). Nearly 9 million pounds (4 million kg) of thrust took the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket into the Final Frontier, where it successfully sent an unmanned Orion spaceship to the moon.
Although the mission is otherwise nominal, the damage left behind is something NASA is looking at closely to prepare for future missions of the Artemis programincluding the next one planned with humans on board: Artemis 2, should fly around the moon no earlier than 2024.
“The damage that we have seen is really only in a few areas,” said Mike Sarafin, NASA Artemis mission manager, during a press conference with reporters on Monday (November 21).
“It just shows,” he added, “that the environment…isn’t the friendliest when you have the most powerful rocket in the world to take off.”
As the spaceship prior to this, the Artemis 1 launch used a water suppression system to reduce the amount of damage to the launch deck, which worked as intended. Nonetheless, paint peeled off the deck of the Artemis 1 launch tower due to the force of the liftoff, Sarafin said.
Elevators for Launch Tower maintenance fared less well, with photos showing twisted framing around at least one of the two elevators after the doors were ripped off by the shock wave generated by the SLS .
“The elevator system is not working right now,” Sarafin explained. “The pressure basically blew the doors off our elevators…right now the elevators are unusable and we need to get them back into service.”
Minor damage was done to pneumatic lines associated with nitrogen gas and helium gas to service the massive SLS tanks, which tricked the oxygen sensors on the pad to read low levels of oxygen amid gas leaks, NASA officials added.
Officials also found two small flying objects near the platform that shouldn’t have been there: “throat plug material” expelled from the rocket during liftoff (which happens from time to time with rocket launches) and a piece of RTV (insulating caulking) from the base of the Orion capsule.
It is not known, however, if the RTV flew off during launch or detached during Tropical Storm Nicole, who ripped off a strip of caulking before the launch; mission officers had determined before launch that the RTV issue would not be a risk.
The damage was minor enough for Sarafin to call SLS a “very clean system,” adding that the rocket exceeded its performance goals and the team will make some changes for Artemis 2.
“It’s about being as safe as possible, given the harsh environment we’re flying in for our astronauts,” he said of the overall mission planning, including the launch phase. “We take this very seriously. The flight safety of our astronauts is paramount.”
Elizabeth Howell is co-author of “Why am I taller (opens in a new tab)?” (ECW Press, 2022; with Canadian astronaut Dave Williams), a book on space medicine. Follow her on Twitter @howellspace (opens in a new tab). Follow us on twitter @Spacedotcom (opens in a new tab) Where Facebook (opens in a new tab).