The Artemis era appears to be at hand. After 12 years of anticipation, two scrubs, and two hurricanes, NASA’s 322-foot-tall (98-meter) SLS rocket is finally ready to take flight. You can watch the action live right here.
Okay, so this could be it. Staying awake for a launch that could happen an hour after midnight shouldn’t pose a problem for me, given my ample supply of candy, popcorn, and Nespresso capsules. It also doesn’t hurt that I’ve waited over a decade for this launch, so this unusually late weekday night will be a small price to pay. Well, assuming NASA can finally light this gigantic candle.
What’s more, the stakes are high. Real high. Artemis 1 is a demonstration mission in which SLS will attempt to send an uncrewed Orion capsule on a 25-day mission to the Moon and back. A successful mission would set the stage for Artemis 2, in which a crew of astronauts would attempt a similar journey. Jim Free, director of exploration systems at NASA, told reporters on November 11 that “we’re never going to get to Artemis 2 if Artemis 1 isn’t successful.”
Blast-off is scheduled for 1:04 am (all times Eastern) on Wednesday, November 16, with the launch window ending two hours later. NASA’s coverage is scheduled to begin at 10:30 pm today, and it will be available at NASA TV, NASA’s YouTube channeland at the live stream below. Commentary for Spanish speakers will be available herewhile a detailed breakdown of the NASA television schedule can be accessed here. And if tanking is your thing, coverage of the cryogenic fueling begins at 3:30 pm today at the same channels. (The fueling might have its own drama—that’s when things went wrong during the previous launch attempts.)
Weather conditions are expected to be 90% favorable for the SLS launch, but should NASA have to scrub, there are launch opportunities available on November 19 and 25. Fingers crossed it won’t come down to that.
Blasting off with 8.8 million pounds of thrust, SLS will become the most powerful rocket in operation and the most powerful rocket ever built. The launch itself promises to be a major thrill, but there are several key stages to monitor in the minutes and hours following liftoff.
SLS’s two solid rocket boosters will bid farewell to the rocket some 126 seconds into the launch, while the core stage will do the same around the 10-minute mark, at which point the Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage (ICPS) will take over. Orion’s solar array will deploy 20 minutes after launch. A pair of course corrections—a perigee raise maneuver and a trans lunar injection burn—are slated to occur at the 52-minute and 89-minute marks, respectively. Orion will detach from the ICPS shortly before the mission reaches the two-hour mark, after which time the uncrewed capsule will be on its own. Orion’s journey to the Moon will take around four days.
More on this story: Artemis 1 and the First Launch of NASA’s Megarocket: What to Know
Yesterday, the Artemis 1 mission management team gave its “go” to proceed towards launch after discussing some last-minute issues, including the status of a newly installed connector on the hydrogen tail service mast umbilical and some minor damage caused by Hurricane Nicole. The storm swept through the region last week, forcing NASA to reschedule the SLS launch from November 14 to November 16. Ready to rock, the launch team initiated the 47-hour, 10-minute countdown at 1:54 am ET on Monday.
NASA opted to leave SLS on Launch Pad 39B at Florida’s Kennedy Space Center as the tropical storm approached. The rocket is designed to withstand winds reaching 85 miles per hour (137 kilometers per hour), but the gusts were stronger than anticipatedwith maximum recorded winds reaching 100 mph (160 km/hr).
These winds caused some minor damage to the rocket, as NASA officials explained at a press briefing held yesterday evening. Nicole’s winds caused around 10 feet of RTV, a sealant, to come loose at a seam between Orion’s launch abort system and the crew module adapter. The RTV, or “room temperature vulcanizer,” fills a gap that exists between the two elements. Or at least, it did.
This kind of repair can only happen when SLS is parked inside the nearby Vehicle Assembly Building, but NASA, after reviewing the damage, concluded that it wasn’t bad enough to warrant repairs or cause a delay to the launch. Mike Sarafin, Artemis 1 mission manager, said the risk posed by the RTV delamination was “bounded by current hazards,” and that no one attending the mission management team meeting voiced any dissenting opinions.
“We do acknowledge that there is a nonzero chance we could have additional RTV [removal] in flight and there is a possibility that it could impact a different area of the vehicle downstream,” Sarafin admitted. Should more RTV come off during the flight, it would likely break into small pieces and hit the Launch Vehicle Stage Adapter, or possibly the inner areas of the side boosters, he added. Regardless, the team concluded that the level of risk is acceptable.
I certainly hope they’re right, as I’m suddenly reminded of the 2003 Columbia disaster, in which a falling chunk of insulating foam struck and damaged the Shuttle’s left wing. The small piece of foam, moving at a high speed, blew a hole in a thermal protection tile that ultimately resulted in the destruction of the vehicle during atmospheric re-entry. The situation with SLS is very different, or at least that’s what we’re being told.
The team plans to meet again today at 2:30 pm ET. Should the meeting go well, ground teams will begin the process of loading 750,000 gallons of supercold liquid oxygen and hydrogen propellant into the rocket’s tanks starting at around 3:30 pm ET. During yesterday’s briefing, Jeremy Parsons, deputy for NASA’s Exploration of Ground System Program, said the ground team will use a “slower, more gentle” loading procedure than the one used during the first two launch attempts, both of which were scrubbed. This slower and more tempered approach to tanking proved successful during a cryogenic tanking test performed on September 27.
Indeed, NASA must overcome the gremlin that is liquid hydrogen—a propellant that caused major headaches and delays during the Shuttle era. Ground teams have now had ample time and practice to figure out the best way of loading the leaky stuff into SLS, so hopefully that won’t pose a problem on Wednesday.