Despite repeated assurances that the November 16, 2022 1:04 am (Eastern) launch of NASA’s SLS rocket remains on target, managers have also noted that damage to a small piece of caulking at the base of the shroud protecting the Orion capsule remains an issue that could cause a scrub.
But high winds from Nicole caused a thin strip of caulk-like material known as RTV to delaminate and pull away from the base of the Orion crew capsule’s protective nose cone at the top of the rocket. The material is used to fill in a slight indentation where the fairing attaches to the capsule, minimizing aerodynamic heating during ascent. The fairing fits over the Orion capsule and is jettisoned once the rocket is out of the dense lower atmosphere. “It was an area that was about 10 feet in length (on the) windward side where the storm blew through,” said mission manager Mike Sarafin. “It is a very, very thin layer of RTV, it’s about .2 inches or less … in thickness.”
Engineers do not have access for repairs at the pad and must develop “flight rationale,” that is, a justification for flying despite the delaminated RTV, in order to proceed with the launch. Managers want to make sure any additional material that pulls away in flight will not impact and damage downstream components.
In plain language, NASA managers would either have to issue a waiver that says this small piece of caulking poses no risk, or scrub and roll the rocket back to the assembly building to fix it. The second option would delay the launch another month, at a minimum.
A waiver however would continue NASA’s pattern with the shuttle (and continuing with SLS) to dismiss potential engineering problems simply to avoid schedule delays. With the shuttle, this pattern twice caused the loss of a shuttle and crew. With SLS, NASA has already waived by more than a year its rules concerning the stacked life of the rocket’s solid-fueled boosters. Agency managers have also waived the full test requirements from the dress rehearsal countdown, so that this test did not test everything it should.
It is expected that NASA managers will announce the waiver today on this problem. Whether it matters when the rocket goes through maximum dynamic pressure shortly after lift-off will likely determine the future of SLS.
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