Tempus Fugit

Mega Moon Rocket Launch Unlikely this Year as NASA Prioritizes Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion

As what was left of Hurricane Ian wound counterclockwise into Georgia and the Carolinas, NASA’s Kennedy Space Center’s “ride out” team emerged from their bunkers and began assessing possible damage to space center facilities and equipment. There wasn’t much. As expected, most of the damage, and there was plenty of it, was sustained by infamous water walls and storm surges off the west coast and immediately inland. The storm wheeled up Florida’s center to hover over Orlando, before jinking towards the northeast. Space Coast facilities were largely untouched.

Textbook definitions of moral damage include mental anguish, anxiety, wounded feelings, and social humiliation. Deluged with epic tidal surges of disappointment and self-doubt, the damages sustained to NASA’s Artemis program goal of placing “the first woman and first person of color on the Moon,” have been largely moral.

“Equity” over Competence?

But they can’t really blame Ian. Even before Tropical Depression Nine began its transition to tropical storm and eventually hurricane status, the Artemis 1 stack was pretty much a dead man (person?) walking. The core rocket and side boosters were designed as onetime disposable rockets, intended to get the payload in orbit, fall back to Earth, and sink into the ocean. They were never intended to remain stacked together for months on end. The stack was certainly not designed to be assembled, rolled out, placed in launch posture, tested, rolled back, repaired, reassembled, rolled out, placed in launch posture, and rolled back to be repaired, over and over, while spring transitioned to summer and summer transitioned into hurricane season.

After months of thermal issues, liquid hydrogen leaks, sensor anomalies, over-pressurization events, possible foreign object damage, failed wet rehearsals, and failed “launch attempts,” NASA identified twenty-odd “limited life items” that needed to be “addressed.” Although the dying batteries of the SLS self-destruct “Flight Termination System” received all the headlines, equipment fatigue ran the gamut from “soft goods” like seals, to hypergolic propellants on the Orion service module, and components on the Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage (ICRS). Even the solid rocket side boosters are one year past their “best used by” dates and will take months to replace.

NASA was able to get sequential waivers from Space Force (the eastern range launch pad owners) for the FTS batteries, from twenty days to twenty-five days, and then for the entire September to early October launch window. But it was all in vain.

So now the work begins again. Once the ride out team surveys possible storm damage and pronounces the infrastructure sound, it will take a week or two for NASA to recall its scattered work force from their own hurricane recovery activities. Inside the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB), engineers will extend multi-tier platforms around the entire Artemis stack, from the engines, up around the core rocket and side boosters, up to and over the Orion capsule. They’ll tear through the core walls between the liquid oxygen and hydrogen tanks, dismantle the FTS and replace its batteries, resetting the certification to 25 days. They’ll address the multitude of “soft goods” issues as best they can, and address concerns over Orion propellants and ICRS components.

While they’re at it, they’ll try their best to salvage what they can of the stowed cargo. Although not widely reported, this unmanned Artemis stack actually carries a cargo of ten cube satellites, a surprising, if uncharacteristically fiscally responsible move for an agency mired in throw-away technology. Three of the cubesats, designed to provide vital intel for future moon missions, CuSP, LunaH-Map, and LunIR, can’t be recharged without de-stacking the Orion capsule, and NASA won’t even attempt it. CuSP was designed to study radiation from star, solar winds, and solar events which interfere with radio communications. LunaH-Map was designed to map the hydrogen content of the entire lunar south pole. LunIR was designed to capture images to help select future landing sites and assess risks to astronauts traversing the lunar surface. All three will be dead on arrival if and when they are ever launched. The remaining cubesats have missions ranging from detecting water deposits to deploying nano moon landers to measuring solar “space weather.” These cubesats could potentially be accessed through two small hatches in the interstage between the ICPS and Orion and recharged enough to deploy solar panels once they reach orbit, and possibly complete their various missions.

But NASA’s new “we’re stronger together” emphasis on “equity” versus competence doesn’t seem to be working, and time just isn’t on their side. There are two launch windows remaining in 2022, with twelve launch opportunities from November 12-27 and eleven launch opportunities from December 9-23. The majority of launch opportunities in the November window are “nighttime” carve outs – NASA’s least favorite launch conditions. But day or night, tempus fugit (times a-wasting).

Kennedy Space Center’s limited cryogenic fuel reservoirs create additional constraints. If a launch attempt is scrubbed, there is a minimum wait of 48 hours before a second attempt can be made. A second scrub activates a 72-hour pause before a third attempt can be made. No more than three launch attempts can be made in any given week.

FTS certification, nighttime launch availabilities, potential weather problems, low earth orbital debris cut outs, mandatory delays on sequential scrubbed launch attempts, solid booster lifespans, and doubts lingering over the efficacy of mandated repairs, all combine to make a 2022 Artemis 1 launch unlikely.

In the meantime, all eyes are on SpaceX Crew Dragon-5, scheduled to launch for the International Space Station for crew rotations from Artemis 1’s neighboring 39A launch platform next Wednesday.

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has traveled extensively in Africa, Asia, Europe, the Caribbean and the South Seas – winning hearts and minds in and out of uniform – federal, military, and freelance.  Now working exclusively freelance, he is fluent in German and English, with survival skills in French, Haitian Creole, Russian, Standard Arabic, Swahili and Samoan.

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