NASA announced Monday plans to move its massive Space Launch System rocket to a safer location due to deteriorating weather conditions around Florida’s Kennedy Space Center as Hurricane Ian continues to move toward the state.

Before the weather delay, NASA was hoping for a third try at launching the Artemis I mission on Tuesday after the first two attempts were scrubbed due to technical issues.

Instead of leaving the 322-foot Space Launch System rocket on the launch pad at the Cape Canaveral facility, where it’s stood since late August, NASA will begin rolling the spacecraft back to an indoor location at the Vehicle Assembly Building, just over four miles away, late Monday evening.

Hurricane Ian could be ‘catastrophic’

Hurricane Ian is headed for Florida’s Gulf Coast and expected to intensify significantly on Monday as it passes over the warm waters of the Caribbean. CNN reports winds in the storm increased from 45 mph Sunday evening to 80 mph late Monday morning, and more strengthening is in the forecast. Ian could intensify into at least a Category 4 before it makes landfall in Florida midweek, according to the National Weather Service.

The National Hurricane Center defines a Category 4 storm as one capable of “catastrophic damage” with sustained winds of 135 mph to 156 mph.

What is NASA’s plan to protect the SLS rocket?

NASA said its managers met Monday morning and made the decision to move the rocket 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. NASA said it will begin moving the rocket at around 11 p.m. EDT on Monday and that the decision allows time for employees to address the needs of their families and protect the integrated rocket and spacecraft system amid worsening weather conditions.

The rocket is headed for the Vehicle Assembly Building, located 4.2 miles from the launch pad. The journey from the building to the launch pad on Aug. 17-18 took about 10 hours.

It’s likely the rollback will take NASA’s backup Artemis I launch date of Oct. 2 off the table as well, though the U.S. space agency has not yet commented on a proposed launch reschedule.

NASA working toward a third try at launching Artemis I space mission later this month
‘Now it’s real’: NASA space crash will test how to divert a planet-killing asteroid
Artemis I launch retry date unclear after second scrub Saturday

Why were the first two Artemis I launch attempts scrubbed?

The first launch attempt on Aug. 29 was shut down after a process to pre-cool the rocket engines in preparation for ignition failed to get one of the four engines to the required temperature of around minus 420 degrees Fahrenheit. In pre-launch preparations that day, NASA engineers also encountered a hydrogen leak that they eventually solved.

A second try on Sept. 3 also went awry, and was ultimately scrubbed, due to a leak in the liquid hydrogen fueling process that could not be solved in time to make the two-hour launch window that day.

Last week, NASA conducted a successful test of the SLS fueling process following repairs to several key fueling mechanisms and appeared ready for a third try on Tuesday before the weather issues surfaced.

What is the Artemis mission?

The crewless Artemis I mission is scheduled to run for 42 days on a flight that will allow NASA experts to test the new SLS components, many of which have been repurposed from the old space shuttle program and other systems, as well as the Orion space capsule.

That capsule, the eventual home for future space travelers, will be carried into lunar orbit where it will take a spin around the moon and then head back to earth for a fiery plunge through the atmosphere at some 25,000 mph before splashing down in the Pacific Ocean at the end of the mission.

Artemis I is just the first in a three-phase program aiming to put astronauts back on the surface of the moon for the first time since the final Apollo moon visit in December 1972.

Artemis II, currently anticipated for sometime in 2024, will head to space with a four-person crew in the Orion capsule that will fly the craft around the moon in further testing. Then, if all goes according to NASA’s current plan, the SLS/Orion package will return on a mission that will include a landing on the moon’s surface in 2025. Along the way, NASA wants to put a small space station, the Lunar Gateway, in orbit around the moon and has future plans that include a moon base station, the Artemis Base Camp.

So, why does NASA want to return to the Moon?

In a posting on the Artemis missions’ website, NASA lists a few reasons why it’s devoting billions of dollars to making moon landings, once again, a priority.

“We’re going back to the moon for scientific discovery, economic benefits and inspiration for a new generation of explorers: the Artemis Generation,” NASA says. “While maintaining American leadership in exploration, we will build a global alliance and explore deep space for the benefit of all.”

And while a return to the moon smacks a little of “been there, done that,” NASA says it’s committed to accomplishing some other first benchmarks as part of the series of Artemis missions, including extending manned exploration deeper into the solar system.

“With Artemis missions, NASA will land the first woman and first person of color on the moon, using innovative technologies to explore more of the lunar surface than ever before,” NASA says in a web posting. “We will collaborate with commercial and international partners and establish the first long-term presence on the moon. Then, we will use what we learn on and around the moon to take the next giant leap: sending the first astronauts to Mars.”

SLS rocket fun-facts

NASA says its SLS launch system stands at 322 feet high — taller than the Statue of Liberty — and weighs 5.75 million pounds when loaded with fuel. During launch and ascent, the SLS will produce 8.8 million pounds of maximum thrust, 15% more thrust than the Saturn V rockets that propelled Apollo astronauts to the moon.