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Range gives NASA waiver to launch SLS on September 27th, despite a questionable flight termination system

In a briefing today, NASA officials confirmed that they are proceeding with their September 27, 2022 first launch of the SLS rocket, having obtained a waiver from the Space Force’s range office on testing the batteries for the flight termination system that would destroy the rocket should it begin flying out of control.

During a Sept. 23 teleconference, NASA announced an extension for the flight termination system battery certification, which expired after 25 days on Sept. 6. Now the Space Force’s Eastern Range has granted a waiver to allow the rocket to launch as late as Oct. 2 before needing to be returned to the Vehicle Assembly building to recertify the batteries.

The flight termination system is only used in the event the rocket veers off course during a launch anomaly.

Note that the 25 day use-by limit was actually an extension itself, as these batteries had been previously required testing every 20 days. Now the range is willing to let them go for as long about 50 days without testing, a two and half times increase.

If the rules before — based on engineering — said the batteries were not reliable after 20 days, why are those batteries now considered reliable up to 50 days? What facts or data does NASA or the Space Force have to allow this waiver? And if they have no data, it seems almost criminal to allow the go-ahead of this launch of a giant untested rocket on its first lift-off. Should something go seriously wrong — which is not that unlikely — and the flight termination system fails to work, we could see a very big rocket careening out-of-control into populated areas.

We all hope SLS launches with no problem on September 27th. We now have a really serious reason for that desire.

Regardless, the launch is now scheduled for a 70-minute launch window that opens at 11:37 am (Eastern) on September 27th, with a back-up launch window on October 2nd of 102 minutes beginning at 2:52 pm (Eastern).

Meanwhile, a developing tropical storm could put a kabosh on all these plans, forcing NASA to roll SLS back to the assembly building anyway. NASA managers plan to meet again before launch to make a decision.

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  • Richard M

    Hello Bob,

    Eric Berger just posted a big article on the weather situation, and you really need to read it:

    “As a meteorologist, I was amazed by Whitmeyer’s comments. (I wasn’t the only meteorologist who felt that way). They did not seem consistent with someone who represents NASA at a high level and advertises himself as possessed of “significant communication skills gained at the highest organizational levels,” on his LinkedIn page.

    “Hurricanes are serious matters, and meteorologists take their responsibility for communicating risks to the public seriously. Tropical Depression Nine, in all likelihood, will become a powerful hurricane that will eventually threaten Florida. It is entirely possible that Kennedy Space Center is spared direct, and serious effects. But it is probably more likely that the storm will have moderate to significant effects there.

    “Just as storms can turn away from Florida, they can also speed up. If NASA makes a decision on Saturday morning to roll back, it may have just enough time to complete the process by the time tropical storm force winds arrive. But that would leave the agency’s employees and contractors to go home in a storm.

    “NASA should be making sure they have time to prepare for this storm—not trying to launch a rocket that is probably not going to be able to launch.”

  • Ray Van Dune

    Hoo-boy… both SRBs and FTS way over their use-by date! That’s a nasty combination!

  • john hare

    I have a somewhat more cavalier attitude towards this storm. If it was to hit the cape, it would pass over my house first by about 60 miles. As a hurricane crosses miles of land it weakens. By the time it reaches me it will be a Cat1 at most. By the time it reaches the cape, it’s a tropical storm at most. AND that assumes that it both becomes a hurricane and follows that particular track. Speaking from a bit of personal experience, it is extremely unlikely that the cape is at risk. Hurricanes are real, sensationalism in media is even more real.

    If I am going to be wrong, there will be a much better forecast by Sunday. I will keep an eye on it as I always do during hurricane season, but I won’t start serious prep until the cone is within 2 days of threat as a full storm. If I lived on the coast, I would have an entirely different attitude and approach. If a storm is approaching from the east, then I get some concern about the cape, but coming from the south-west, danger is minimal.

  • john hare

    I am more concerned with the FTS and waver library than the storm.

  • Ray Van Dune: Oh yes, I forgot about the strap-on solid rocket boosters. They are are also almost a year past their use-by date.

    I am beginning to wonder if deep down in the bowels of NASA management, they want SLS to fail, so they can dump it and focus on using private enterprise entirely. They I think now mostly realize that it is to their benefit to get things done, and commercial space is doing it for them, and they can’t do it themselves.

  • Ray Van Dune

    The 800-lb gorilla in the room is the SRB situation. If they can’t go by Oct 2, they have to go into the VAB and inspect / refresh the FTS. The question is then, do they stay and do the SRB replacement, or go for launch again ASAP?

    I think I know the answer – Artemis I is riding the only SRBs it will ever see.

  • Ray Van Dune

    Bob, you said “I am beginning to wonder if deep down in the bowels of NASA management, they want SLS to fail, so they can dump it and focus on using private enterprise entirely.”

    I can relate to that, but if its failure is exacerbated by their safety shortcuts, they will be lucky to work in the industry again! Not to mention the RSO and the General he or she works for!

  • Patrick Underwood

    Dunno, I can easily see how the FTS situation might have come about. At first, a committee decides that the battery must have, say, a 95% charge level, because we are serious people and failure is not an option(TM). Besides, that’s what it says in the rule book, since like 1972. Even though everyone in the room knows a 75% charge level perfectly adequately satisfies some theoretical statistic like 99.999999% chance of successfully blowing up our rocket. So it’s not that difficult to get a few days’ extension, even though it’s painful to watch the journalists and tweeters reminding us we said we’d never go there. But who cares what those dummies think. But now we’re really on the hook, our schedule is completely blown if we can’t get another, bigger extension. Because we all know perfectly well that a 65% charge level gives us a 99.9999% chance of blowing the thing up. And look, there’s precedent—you gave us an extension before, why in the world can’t you just keep doing that? Remember, at 45% charge level, we still have a 99.99% chance of success. What’s the big deal?

  • sippin_bourbon

    “I am beginning to wonder if deep down in the bowels of NASA management, they want SLS to fail,”

    Well, all the Artemis t-shirts are on clearance for 9.99 at the KSC gift shop…

    (yes, sarcasm, but also yes, they had them on clearance. They had other Artemis merch that was regular price.)

  • Frank Solomon

    Bob Zimmerman: “ . . . I am beginning to wonder if deep down in the bowels of NASA management, they want SLS to fail . . .”

    As long as no one gets hurt, that would become one helluva show – an EXPENSIVE show . . .

  • GaryMike

    I actually want SLS to fail. I want politicians to have to own their participation in said failure.

    Sadly, that will force them to have to subvert Private Space for they’re grifting needs.

    Hopefully, Private Space will be able to get off planet before then, to be able to better resist the parasites.

  • David Eastman

    I’ve come to the conclusion that as much as I hate the program, and am dismayed by the horrible incompetence of it, I have to support the whole Artemis/SLS shebang and hope it succeeds. My reasoning is that our government is now openly hostile to Elon Musk and SpaceX, and if SLS goes down and takes Artemis with it, the “why are we wasting money so billionaires can go to space when we have so many pressing needs here on Earth” crowd is going to win, and basically shut down our space program for anything significant. And then the Chinese dominate, and nobody will like where that leads.

  • David

    It would seem most likely they will scrub once again and make the decision to just roll it back to the assembly building. With Ian currently forecast to have a potential second U.S. landfall (after first possibly making a landfall in the Florida Keys) somewhere from S.W. Florida (ECMWF) to somewhere possibly still off the west coast of Florida in the Gulf of Mexico at day 5 (GFS), it sure seems most likely they’ll scrub. I think I remember reading somewhere it takes a bit of time to do that move, so why take the chance since this beast has already had scrubs aplenty. What’s one more?

    While the National Hurricane Center forecasters have made great strides on improving skill scores of trajectory forecasts over the last couple of decades, intensity forecasting skill has not seen the same measure of improvement. Getting better, but tropical system intensity is a tough nut to crack. Some of the forecast models used specifically for tropical systems are already showing high probably (55-70%) that the system will undergo a rapid intensification period that would further increase the storm’s wind speeds over the currently forecast numbers of 105-115 mph at 72-120 hour timeframe as of this evening’s 11pm update. It will not surprise me to see Ian a Cat 4 as it approaches the U.S. mainland.

    So, they roll her back and announce they’ll now have the opportunity to address the FTS batteries, SRB’s, inspections, etc. and thus push the next launch date back by, what, a couple of months?

    I doubt very seriously anyone in the program wants a launch failure, spectacular or otherwise.

  • Ray Van Dune

    David, re: “…this beast has already had scrubs aplenty. What’s one more?”

    There is a finite limit to the number of crawler movements and launch attempts that the rocket can support before becoming rocket garden ornament material. It is not built for reuse like its cousins at SpaceX, and to optimize performance it is built to “reasonable” margins.

    You also mentioned returning to the VAB as an opportunity to address FTS batteries and SRBs. They will certainly change the FTS batteries, but my impression is that re-stacking a new set of SRBs is a much bigger proposition, and I have heard no indication that preparations for the latter are underway. Of course it might be just a case of accelerating the delivery of the Artemis II items, but it’s still a major deal.

  • sippin_bourbon

    “I want politicians to have to own their participation in said failure.”

    That is easy to say, and yet, that never happens. The Washington DC blame-shields will be up and fully charged.

    The blame will be pointed at the contractors, Trump admin for trying to rush things, the Russians/Putin, heck they might even go retro and blame Bush. It may even be the fault of climate change and white supremacy (the program was just not diverse enough). Whatever, but it will no, no matter what, fall on the congressional parties that mandated it.

  • Matt in AZ

    Well, it looks like the coming storm is indeed forcing a rollback to the VAB. There was just enough of a window for us to see the government’s corrupt incompetence extends to range safety now too.

  • GaryMike

    Hmm. Before long, frozen o-ring possibilities?

  • Edward

    Matt in AZ wrote: “Well, it looks like the coming storm is indeed forcing a rollback to the VAB. There was just enough of a window for us to see the government’s corrupt incompetence extends to range safety now too.

    I’m more with Patrick Underwood. It is more likely that NASA was being overly cautious with their first limit on the battery, just as they were with the engine that shut down unnecessarily on the Green Test; they had too tightly set the shutdown limits for the engines.

    The SRB limit may be a similar problem. The time limit, due to possible propellant sagging, which could cause dangerous conditions, is based upon an assumption that the propellant may settle over time. As I understand it, there has not yet been a set of Shuttle/SLS SRBs stacked for long enough to determine whether the propellant creeps. This is a good opportunity for NASA to take a data point on this issue.

    It seems to me that the real problem is that NASA is not talking enough about either issue to give the rest of us an indication as to why the limits were set as they are or why they are confident that the limits can be extended. With NASA’s history of “normalization of deviance,” as Diane Vaughn put it in her book The Challenger Launch Decision, we don’t have much reason to have confidence that NASA is being safe enough. Even my acceptance of Patrick’s analysis is based upon assumptions fortified by my experience in the space business, and I can’t give reassurances that NASA is being safe.

    So, why do people think “the government’s corrupt incompetence“? Oh, wait, not “the government” (governments have been corrupt and incompetent for millennia) but NASA’s corrupt incompetence. People think NASA is corrupt and incompetent, and they think so because NASA has been messing up ever since the end of Project Apollo and the dregs of the Apollo Applications Project, after which the Space Shuttle project got going in force.

    What happened to the great NASA that put us on the Moon, was turning the dreams of the 1950s into the plans of the 1960s, and produced many spinoff innovations for Earth as well as for space? Perhaps it was the abandonment of NASA by President Nixon and the misuse of the skills, talents, and knowledge of NASA’s employees and contractors by Congress for Congress’s own benefit, not the nation’s.

    Will the politicians get any blame for a failure of SLS? Of course not. It’s not as though Congress had anything to do with the design, even though Congress gave NASA a design that was kluged together from Shuttle parts. It isn’t as though the politicians set the mission as a return to the Moon, then cancelled that mission because, as the [*** begin sarcasm ***] wise Obama said, “been there, done that,” [*** end sarcasm ***] leaving NASA without a mission to work toward, then set the mission to going to an asteroid, then resetting the mission to retrieving an asteroid, then a rock from an asteroid, then back to the Moon. SLS had too few and too many missions to accomplish, so how do you design a rocket system to do all (and none of) that? How many other projects have been mucked up by continually changing requirements? (Answer: most military projects since WWII.)

    The ISS also was continually changed by Congress and presidents, trying to save money or to employ Russian space workers so that they wouldn’t work for Iran or North Korea. That was another NASA project mucked up by politicians who didn’t use NASA for its strengths. ISS ended up as a kluge.

    The Space Shuttle was also a kluge, because NASA had to make compromises to get Air Force support when President Nixon abandoned NASA.

    Robert often says that SLS’s main purpose is to spread around taxpayer money in order for various Congressmen to get votes for reelection, or to keep the Shuttle employees employed, or something like that. With SLS being such a disappointment, ISS falling far short of its original promise from NASA’s initial vision in the 1980s, and the Space Shuttle failing to make space easily accessible with low-cost weekly flights, the U.S. manned space program has prevented the achievement of the dreams of the 1950s or the vision of Clark and Kubric in 1968’s 2001, A Space Odyssey.

    Politicians sure did a job on the once-great NASA, and now we easily assume that NASA is once again about to disappoint us with an overpriced, useless, out of control, and exploding (but whose flight cannot be terminated) rocket. Oh, how the mighty have fallen. It took a few decades, but we have lost confidence in NASA. This is the politicians fault — and they will once again get away with it.

  • David

    Ray Van Dune – Thanks for the info. Interesting stuff from you and all here. Oh, and the “rocket garden ornamental material,” that was good! I like that…

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