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NASA will roll back Artemis I to safeguard the Moon rocket from Hurricane Ian

Hurricane season is the latest setback for NASA's Artemis I mission.

SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images

NASA will roll Artemis I off its launchpad to shelter the Moon rocket from Hurricane Ian, the space agency announced Monday.

“Managers met Monday morning and made the decision based on the latest weather predictions associated with Hurricane Ian, after additional data gathered overnight did not show improving expected conditions for the Kennedy Space Center area,” the space agency announced in a blog post. The rocket began its four mile journey at 11:21 p.m. Eastern on Monday. It traveled aboard a crawler transporter towards the site’s Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB), where it arrived Tuesday morning at 9:15 a.m. Eastern. This comes two days after NASA announced its target launch date on Tuesday, September 27, would no longer be a possibility.

It’s the latest update to a lengthy list of launch delays this year. Artemis I first emerged as a fully-stacked rocket from the VAB on March 17, with the Orion capsule placed atop the powerful Space Launch System (SLS). Artemis I will fly uncrewed, but the following missions will carry astronauts to the Moon for the first time since Apollo. The high cost of the program, coupled with the precious human cargo that may fly aboard in the future, means that Artemis I must succeed as a demonstration with flying colors.

Here’s the background — On July 20, which is the anniversary of the first Moon landing, NASA announced Artemis I’s first target launch dates. Although this announcement came a month after NASA called its fourth wet dress rehearsal a success, this propellant loading demonstration on June 20 was incomplete. NASA proceeded with scheduling the rocket’s launch dates despite not completing the wet dress rehearsal all the way down through terminal count up to a stop just short of hypothetical liftoff. NASA made the choice to embrace any persistent issues with fuel loading on the launch days, and call the launch off — or scrub — if necessary. And that’s what happened on August 29 and September 3.

After resealing two locations where propellant leaked, NASA conducted a modified fueling demonstration last week. Confident in the results of the September 21 test, the space agency geared up to attempt an Artemis I launch a third time. But by then, the Caribbean was well into hurricane season. In the wake of Hurricane Fiona’s devastation, another system began to develop just north of Colombia.

Wind speed probabilities for Hurricane Ian from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. NOAA

What’s new — NASA grew concerned about Tropical Depression 9 as early as Thursday, when weather models showed that mighty winds might head towards southern Florida where Artemis I sat at its launchpad.

On Friday, Artemis leaders said they were keeping an eye on the storm, and had instructed KSC staff to make preparations that would streamline a rollback if it was necessary. By Saturday, they called off the Tuesday, September 27 attempt, but remained hopeful they wouldn’t have to roll the 5.75-million-lb rocket back to its garage.

But Monday morning, the storm’s escalation into Hurricane Ian prompted the space agency to make the call, and direct teams to vacate Artemis from the exposed launchpad.

What’s next — The next target launch date may not happen anymore, either.

If Artemis I was able to stay at the launchpad, NASA had a better shot of preserving an opportunity to fly on Sunday, October 2. Since Artemis I must fly within a block of time when the Earth and Moon are located in an ideal configuration, the wait has extended once again until Artemis I takes off, which may not be until November. For now, the rocket will sit in the VAB, safeguarded from inclement weather.

This post was updated on Tuesday September 27 to reflect the rollback times.

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