WASHINGTON (AFP): NASA said Friday it plans to attempt its long-delayed uncrewed mission to the Moon as scheduled next Wednesday, after inspections revealed only minor damage from Hurricane Nicole’s passage through Florida.
Jim Free, a senior official at the US space agency, told journalists there was “nothing preventing” a launch on that date, and said that NASA teams had managed to access the launch pad on Thursday.
The launch of the heavy lift rocket, the most powerful ever built by contractors for NASA, is now due to take place at 01:04am local time (0604 GMT) on Wednesday, with a possible launch window of two hours.
The uncrewed mission, dubbed Artemis 1, will bring the United States a step closer to returning astronauts to the Moon five decades after humans last walked on the lunar surface.
The rocket will propel the empty Orion crew capsule to the Moon, without landing on its surface. If the launch takes place as planned, the mission will last 25-and-a-half days before the capsule returns on December 11 with splashdown in the Pacific Ocean.
However, the US space agency has “some work to do” before the launch, said Free, such as powering up the vehicle and carrying out some technical tests.
One element on the base of the rocket, which may have been damaged, may need to be replaced.
The highly anticipated launch has already been delayed three times in as many months.
Free, who is NASA’s associate administrator for exploration systems development, said two back-up launch dates have been set for November 19 and November 25, if necessary.
Winds from Hurricane Nicole, a category 1 storm, battered the rocket as it stood on its launch pad at the Kennedy Space Center. However, the wind speeds did not surpass the limits the vehicle can withstand, said Free.
However, he conceded that if NASA had known the hurricane was approaching, the SLS rocket would have been left in the vehicle assembly building.
The rocket was returned to the building in September to protect it from Hurricane Ian, but was taken back out to the launch pad just days before Nicole arrived.
Artemis 1 will mark the launch of the flagship Artemis program, which is aimed at taking the first woman and the first person of color to the Moon, by 2025, at the earliest.
NASA wants to establish a lasting human presence on the Moon, including the construction of a space station in orbit around the Moon. This is seen as a step that could lead to the first trip to Mars.