NASA on Monday started the countdown to the scheduled launch of its New Moon rocket this week, although hurricane damage could delay the test flight further.
Strong winds from Hurricane Nicole flaked off a 10-foot (3‑meter) section of sealant near the crew capsule at the tip of the rocket last Thursday. Mission managers want to make sure the narrow strip won’t damage the rocket if it breaks off during launch. A final decision was expected on Monday evening.
The launch is scheduled for the early hours of Wednesday morning from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, with test dummies on board instead of astronauts. It is the first test flight for the 98-meter rocket, the most powerful ever built by NASA, and will attempt to send the capsule into lunar orbit.
The nearly month-long, $4 billion mission has been disrupted since August by fuel leaks and Hurricane Ian, which forced the missile back into its hangar to seek shelter in late September. The rocket stayed on the pad for Nicole; Managers said there wasn’t enough time to move it when it became clear the storm was going to be stronger than expected.
The space agency plans to send astronauts around the moon in 2024 and land a crew on the lunar surface in 2025.
Astronauts last visited the moon in December 1972, ending the Apollo program.
A microwave-sized NASA satellite, meanwhile, arrived Sunday in a special lunar orbit after a summer launch from New Zealand. On this elongated orbit, stretching tens of thousands of miles (kilometers), the space agency plans to build a depot for lunar crews. Known as the gateway, the way station serves astronauts en route to and from the lunar surface.
The satellite, called Capstone, will test a navigation system in this orbit for six months.