Wednesday, December 7

NASA to Roll SLS Rocket Back To VAB Before Ian Makes Landfall – ExtremeTech


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Hurricane Ian is on track to cut a broad swathe across Florida’s panhandle and peninsula. Unfortunately for NASA, Ian’s timing coincides exactly with Artemis 1, the inaugural launch of the agency’s Space Launch System moon rocket. So, out of prudence, NASA has called off the Artemis 1 launch they had scheduled for liftoff on Oct. 2. Instead, the agency will roll the SLS rocket back to the Vehicle Assembly Building, in order to protect it from the storm and make some repairs to the rocket. Mission techs will also need to replace the batteries on the rocket’s flight termination system.

In a blog post, NASA said, “The decision allows time for employees to address the needs of their families and protect the integrated rocket and spacecraft system.” The agency held out as long as it could, waiting for a favorable forecast, before finally calling off the launch. “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.”

As of Monday evening, the storm is moving NNW, with the eye about to pass over Western Cuba. The storm will linger over the island through the evening into Tuesday morning. Then, NOAA forecasts that Ian will explode in intensity, blossoming into a fearsome Category 4 as it passes over an area of very warm water in the Gulf.

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While the ocean contributes a ton of energy to the storm, wind conditions may be less favorable. NOAA has identified a band of vertical wind shear toward the southwest. That shear may well undercut Ian’s intensity before it makes landfall. It’s just too soon to tell.

‘Worst-Case Scenario’ for Tampa

As the storm heads for landfall somewhere along Florida’s Gulf Coast, projections disagree on where exactly the storm will go. Much of coastal Florida, from Cape Coral northward, is already under mandatory evacuation orders.

It’s likely that flooding will be the most dangerous part of this storm. Most of Florida can expect several inches to a foot of rain. But the storm surge forecast keeps rising. That puts Tampa and St. Petersburg in particular danger.

Rick Davis, of the National Weather Service’s Tampa office, explained that the area doesn’t have to get a direct hit from the hurricane to see catastrophic flooding. Tampa Bay is exquisitely vulnerable to storm surge, because water pushed into the bay has nowhere to go. “So it just continues to pile water in into downtown Tampa,” Davis said.

“We tell people even if they’re lifelong Floridians like myself, this is something that we haven’t seen in our lifetime,” Davis added. “So we definitely need to take it seriously.”

Worse, the storm is slowing down. As of Monday evening, Ian was moving NNW over Cuba at about 13 mph. But forecasts show that the hurricane may slow to just seven miles an hour by Wednesday evening. At that speed, Ian could squat over central Florida for four days.

NASA will roll the SLS rocket back to the Vehicle Assembly Building, to protect it from Hurricane Ian.

Click the image to go to NOAA’s Hurricane Ian forecast page.

Storm surge is more a problem for Florida’s Gulf Coast than its Atlantic side. But the fact that Kennedy Space Center is on the Atlantic coast doesn’t exempt it from risk. For a hurricane approaching from the Gulf of Mexico, Kennedy will be on the “dirty side” of the storm. Hurricanes in the Northern hemisphere rotate counter-clockwise, so for a northbound hurricane, winds in its eastern quadrant will be blowing toward the shore, backed by the full force of the hurricane’s momentum. That means places to the east of the storm are at the greatest risk from wind, storm surge, and airborne debris. As comedian Ron White once said, “It’s not that the wind is blowin’… it’s what the wind is blowin’.”

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NASA hasn’t made an official announcement yet, but this rollback pretty much rules out a launch attempt in October. It will simply take too long to unplug the SLS, roll it back to the VAB, make the repairs, and then reconnect all those wires and hoses. However, there’s another launch opportunity on Nov. 12.

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