IIf you own a 32-story, 2.6 million kg (5.7 million pound) moon rocket costing $4.1 billion, the last thing you think you’d want to do is leave it outside in a hurricane . Well, NASA does own a 32-story, 2.6 million kg, $4.1 billion lunar rocket, and leaving it in a hurricane is exactly what the agency did yesterday — mostly because it turned out to be the best and safest of very bad options . With the sunrise this morning, it looked like the gamble paid off.
The lunar rocket, officially known as the Space Launch System (SLS), is currently scheduled to launch in the early morning hours of November 16, marking the start of the Artemis 1 lunar orbiter mission. week doing the crawling 4 miles. (6.4 km) journey from its Vehicle Assembly Hangar (VAB) in just over 12 hours and taking up position at pad 39B in the early morning of 4 November.
At the time, the planned launch date for the rocket was November 14, but on November 7, the National Weather Service detected Tropical Storm Nicole forming in the Atlantic Ocean. It was another unfortunate setback for the SLS, which had already missed two launch attempts before that – in August and early September – due to technical issues. Then, on September 27, NASA had to remove the rocket from the launch pad and head to the safety of the VAB as Hurricane Ian approached Florida.
But Nicole was not Ian; not only was the storm weaker than the September hurricane, its early track caused it to miss the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) by a wide margin. However, Nicole grew up fast and changed course. By November 8, it had strengthened to what would eventually be a Category 1 storm—one that sought to make landfall just 112 km (70 mi) south of the Cape Canaveral area, close enough to cause strong winds and torrential rain at the space center.
Like NASA reportsthe KSC team immediately went to what it calls HURCON (Hurricane condition) 3 state. That meant locking down space center facilities, evacuating non-essential personnel and leaving only a “removal team” in place – a small staff on site to monitor conditions and take care of emergencies. As for the rocket, the KSC team had a choice. Like CBS, CNNand others report, the SLS is certified to withstand winds of up to 136 km/h (85 mph), but only if it is attached to its gantry on the launch pad. If it made the 12-hour trip back to VAB, it would only be able to withstand winds of just over half of those without facing the risk of damage or even capsizing in gusts of 74 to 95 mph Category 1. So the decision was made to leave it right where it was.
“The team decided that the launch pad was the safest place for the rocket,” NASA Associate Administrator Jim Free said in statement posted on Twitter.
The team turned out to be right. After the storm passed — it made landfall with maximum sustained winds of 75 mph — technicians scrambled to the site. They found only minimal damage Friday morning: some loose insulation sealing and some tears in the atmospheric coatings placed on top of the rocket’s hull. Checks will continue throughout the day, but for now it looks like the snaking SLS has finally given up. As of this morning, the launch remains on schedule for next Wednesday, and NASA’s Artemis program — the country’s first attempt to return astronauts to the moon in half a century — remains on track.
More election coverage from TIME