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NASA is once again counting down the hours until the first flight test of its new 32-story Artemis rocket, the rocket the agency hopes will take astronauts back to the moon within a few years.
The space agency has been scrambling to get the multibillion-dollar rocket off the ground so it can send a capsule — with no crew on board — around the moon and back, allowing managers to conduct critical tests of its systems. The launch is now scheduled for a two-hour window opening on Wednesday, November 16 at 1:04 a.m. EST, and the weather at the Florida launch site looks promising.
Jeremy Parsons, deputy program manager for Exploration Ground Systems at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, told reporters Monday night that “the countdown is going very well so far and we’re on track.”
A successful launch would mark a major milestone for NASA’s Artemis program, which aims to place the first woman and first person of color on the lunar surface. The agency hasn’t launched a spacecraft designed to send astronauts to the moon since 1972.
The first launch attempt of the Artemis rocket, in August, was called off due to a faulty motor sensor. After that, the agency had to make repairs due to hydrogen fuel leaks. Then Hurricane Ian rolled in and forced the missile to roll back to its hangar, which Parsons called “a bit of a disappointment”.
And once the massive rocket returned to its launch pad on the Florida coast, it was blown up by Hurricane Nicole, which turned out to be a stronger storm than officials expected.
Mission managers have spent a lot of time discussing hurricane damage to a thin strip of caulking material that fills a small gap at the top of the rocket, where the Orion crew capsule sits. Some of this material has torn away and it is too high to be repaired.
One concern was that more pieces would come loose during takeoff and hit other parts of the rocket. But NASA’s Mike Sarafin, Artemis I’s mission manager, says engineers have extensively analyzed the situation and believe it’s OK to fly.
“We went through that today and we closed that action point,” Sarafin told reporters on a conference call Monday. “I asked if there were any dissenting opinions, there were none, and we accepted that reason for fleeing.”
He says that because the Artemis team has weathered all these recent setbacks, “that gives me comfort that we will be ready when it’s our time to fly.”
“Our time is coming. And we hope it’s Wednesday,” says Sarafin. “But if Wednesday isn’t the right day, we’ll take that next hurdle, that next trial, and persevere there.”
Some aerospace experts have criticized NASA’s new rocket, saying it is far too expensive to be sustainable — the first three flights are expected to cost more than $4 billion each.
And this rocket won’t fly that often. The next flight, to send astronauts around the moon, will take place in a few years. A moon landing will not take place until 2025 at the earliest.
But building this big rocket has been a major focus of NASA’s human spaceflight program since it stopped flying its space shuttles in 2011.
To focus on the moon and deep space, the agency has left routine trips to the International Space Station to commercial providers. Space capsules operated by the private company SpaceX, founded by wealthy entrepreneur Elon Musk, carry cargo and operate as space taxis for astronauts.
NASA selected SpaceX to build the lunar lander that will lift astronauts to the surface from a capsule orbiting the moon. And SpaceX is also developing a large rocket called Starship, which is designed to be reusable and less expensive than NASA’s Artemis rocket.