NASA downplays launch pad damage caused by SLS rocket
A scorched platform, fried cameras, broken pipes and a broken elevator were among the casualties of last week’s launch of NASA’s SLS rocket. Mobile Launcher 1 and Launch Complex 39B at the Kennedy Space Center will need repairs, but NASA says they will be ready for the next Artemis mission.
Space Launch System, or SLS, fired in the early hours of Wednesday, Nov. 16, sending the Orion capsule on a 25.5-day trip to the moon and back. It was a perfect launch and NASA said the same. Preliminary data from the Artemis 1 flight show that SLS has performed as well or even exceeded expectations, Mike Sarafin, Artemis 1 mission manager, told reporters yesterday.
SLS performance deviations were less than 0.3 percent across the board, and the rocket missed NASA’s orbit target by just 3 nautical miles, according to Sarafin. He reminded reporters that the SLS exerts 8.8 million pounds of thrust at liftoff, and the fact that the SLS drifts 7 feet every second is still “remarkable” in terms of precision. “The results were impressive,” he added.
Photojournalists at the Kennedy Space Center were told do not take pictures of Start complex 39B for security reasons (ie ITAR restrictions; NASA says that taking pictures of the now-exposed umbilical cords would constitute a security breach), and possibly because NASA doesn’t want to advertise the fact that its launch tower was damaged.
During a press briefing Friday, Sarafin acknowledged that the mobile launch tower suffered some damage as a result of the launch, resulting in temperatures exceeding 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit. “We expected to find damage at the site, and we are finding damage at the site,” Sarafin said.
At a press conference held yesterday, the mission management team offered further details and some visuals detailing the extent of the damage. In addition to fresh burn marks on the tower and missing paint on her deck, a number of pod chambers were burned and some nitrogen and helium supply lines sustained minor damage. Sarafin said the blast doors of the tower’s elevators were torn off by the missile’s shock wave, so “the elevators are not working right now and we have to get them back into service.” Overall, the damage “that we’ve seen is to really, only a few areas,” he said, adding that the SLS is largely a “very clean system.”
At the same time, the drainage system “did a great job” and the service umbilicals on the tailmast were “clean inside,” Sarafin explained. He added that repairs are needed, but he is confident that everything will be ready for the Artemis 2 crewed mission in 2024. That may seem like plenty of time, but stacking operations for the follow-on mission will likely have to begin next year .
The mission control team seemed largely unfazed, and it’s entirely possible that the damage was indeed minimal or at least manageable. It may also be true that NASA is doing its best to downplay any damage caused by its new pride and joy. Opinions posted on Twitter varied, with some saying the damage was much worse than NASA is willing to admitas others say the damage is no big deal and it is are all part of the engineering process. Surprises are indeed to be expected when launching the world’s most powerful rocket, but if the damage is worse than NASA leads us to believe, then they should admit it.
Back at the moon ranch, the unmanned Orion capsule continues to do its job. The spaceship made a close flyby of the moon yesterday as it steadily makes its way into a distant retrograde orbit around the Moon. Orion will end its 25.5-day mission in December 11 as it attempts to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere and fall into the Pacific Ocean. Artemis 1 is the first of what NASA hopes will be a series of missions to establish a permanent human presence in the lunar environment.
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