NASA Gives Up on Launching Artemis - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
NASA Gives Up on Launching Artemis

It’s Monday morning at the Space Force’s Launch Complex 39B at the Kennedy Space Center — and it’s official. NASA has given up all hope of launching its “mega moon rocket” anytime soon and has begun the laborious process of rolling the creaking old behemoth back to the Vehicle Assembly Building.

Cobbled together from outdated Shuttle-era parts, with a shiny new Boeing prototype capsule on top, the thing has as many names as it has failed launch attempts: space launch vehicle, Artemis 1, Orion (technically just the capsule), and mega moon rocket, the media favorite. But this rose by any other name can’t seem to rise to the occasion.

Plagued by delays and cost overruns since its inception, the decades-old project emulates the ancient Russian Soyuz and recently upgraded Chinese Long March expendable launch-once-and-then-throw-away “mega” boosters, with the exception that theirs work.

Trying to get up to speed on ground systems and procedures that haven’t been needed due to 10 years of reliance on Soviet rockets, NASA ripped out miles of Apollo-era cabling and analog systems and replaced them with “modern” fiber optics and digital controls. It hastily hired a “diverse” team of California Institute of Technology and Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory grads and hoped for the best. Their best, alas, was at best mediocre.

The Stennis green runs failed to demonstrate engine performance that could sustain an actual launch, but because of the limited lifespan of the core stage components, NASA sent the thing off to Cape Canaveral to “hammer out the bugs” while it assembled the mega moon rocket for launch. That was May 2021. Artemis didn’t roll out of the Vehicle Assembly Building hangar for the launch pad until almost one year later, in March 2022. Its first “wet dress” revealed umbilical seal and hydrogen leaks which required a return to the Vehicle Assembly Building for repair. Tests two, three, and four were delayed, rescheduled, and delayed again due to continued leaks and sensor failures. In June, despite persistent hydrogen leaks, NASA declared a successful “wet rehearsal” and dragged the mega moon rocket back to the Vehicle Assembly Building for repairs and “to prepare for launch.”

Weeks turned into months, but finally, the mega moon rocket was trundled out of the Vehicle Assembly Building and prepared for launch. A succession of increasingly confident NASA press releases announced pre-launch, launch, and post-launch press conferences and media events (“We Are Going!”). Vice President Kamala Harris was invited to the Kennedy Space Center on Aug. 29 to witness the proud moment. Expectations ran high, and then … nothing. The launch was scrubbed before fueling was complete due to recurring hydrogen leaks and faulty temperature sensors. Harris, breathlessly poised to take credit for a successful Artemis 1 launch, was directed to quickly exit stage left at the first sign of failure.

After a series of ineffectual attempts to resolve the leaks, NASA lost the entire Aug. 29–Sept. 6 launch window. It missed the first two weeks of the Sept. 19–Oct. 5 window for similarly unresolved leaks, and finally, just yesterday, citing then–Tropical Storm Ian, NASA decided to roll the mega moon rocket back to “the protection” of the Vehicle Assembly Building.

There were of course other issues. Sensor alarms had been bypassed by new software and more broadly defined “safety parameters,” and they really needed more reliable corrections. Hydrogen leaks had been minimized by what amounted to duct tape and chewing gum workarounds, and they really needed more lasting solutions. The batteries of various satellites stowed inside the Orion/mega moon rocket adaptor ring for post-launch deployment needed recharging, and the batteries powering the mega moon rocket’s Flight Termination System needed replacement. As unnamed Tropical Depression Nine loomed off of the coasts of Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, NASA expressed the remote, if unlikely, possibility that if the tropical depression progressed to a named tropical storm, it might have to scrub an early October “launch attempt.”

Enter Tropical Storm Ian. NASA insisted that the mega moon rocket “was robust” and could sustain tropical storm gusts but acknowledged that evacuation to the safety of the Vehicle Assembly Building on the refurbished Apollo-era crawler could take up to three days, during which it would be susceptible to severe wind gusts. NASA announced that it would meet with weather experts at 5 p.m. Friday and announce its decision early Saturday morning. The decision was later delayed to early or mid-morning Sunday and, most recently, to Sunday night.

And now it’s official. There is no hope of a launch during this launch period and no reasonable hope for the next launch window of Oct. 17–Oct. 31. Although no one really expects Ian to actually strike Cape Canaveral, any damage to support architecture, road systems, or supply channels could create additional plausible launch defaults.

With SpaceX’s Dragon Crew-5 scheduled to launch from neighboring launch pad 39A on Oct. 3, having Artemis safely tucked away in the Vehicle Assembly Building solved a range of problems from safety issues to PR concerns. Imagine a gleeful SpaceX crew launch in the foreground and the rust-red hulk of the unmanned, unfueled (and potentially unfuelable) mega moon rocket cowering in the background.

Hidden behind the Vehicle Assembly Building hangar doors, the ill-fated mega moon rocket can fade from the public’s memory as NASA “launches” a series of press events (all it’s been able to get off the ground lately) to tout the Double Asteroid Redirection Test, which is due to strike an orbiting asteroid this evening; the spacecraft Juno, which will execute a flyby past Jupiter’s largest moon, Ganymede; or SpaceX launches to the International Space Station, with its diverse crew from NASA, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, and Russia’s State Space Corporation. While the media gushes over the astronauts on the International Space Station, NASA can disassemble Artemis 1, demate the Orion space capsule, recharge or replace batteries in the various rideshare cube satellites, and even beef up the temporary fixes on the various hydrogen fuel lines.

While on the topic of Elon Musk and SpaceX, his orbital launch of Starship (SpaceX doesn’t call them “launch attempts” — yet) is scheduled before the end of this year. If the Starship launch is even a limited success — i.e., if it actually achieves orbit — NASA may well not even consider its final remaining mega moon rocket launch window this year, which is Dec. 9–Dec. 23.

In the case of NASA and Mother Nature, and maybe SpaceX and Starship, and maybe even the future of American space exploration, Hurricane Ian is an ill wind that blows nobody good.

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