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Artemis I rocket rolled back to VAB as NASA, Space Force prep for Hurricane Ian

NASA’s giant moon rocket Artemis I is rolled back into the Vehicle Assembly Building early Tuesday, September, 27, 2002 to protect it from Hurricane Ian. Mandatory Credit: Craig Bailey/FLORIDA TODAY via USA TODAY NETWORK

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Update: See our latest Hurricane Ian-related spaceport impacts story here. For a list of all closures at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station and Patrick Space Force Base, visit this link.

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NASA teams in Florida, racing against the clock to avoid impacts from Hurricane Ian, completed rollback of the agency's massive Artemis I moon rocket to its home in the Vehicle Assembly Building early Monday.

Just after 9 a.m. EDT, technicians walking alongside the 322-foot, moon-bound rocket kept a close eye as it entered the historic structure where NASA vehicles have been assembled for more than 50 years. The four-mile trek from pad 39B started late Monday and took about 10 hours.

Now that it's safely in the VAB, teams will extend a structure just above the rocket – Platform A – to act as a safeguard just in case Hurricane Ian causes enough damage to puncture the building. That's not impossible given that the historic 2004 hurricane season saw more than 820 aluminum tiles ripped off the VAB and several holes form on the sides and roof.

At pad 39B, meanwhile, the rocket's massive propellant storage tanks have been left half empty as another precaution against inclement weather.

The agency's Artemis I mission to the moon, an uncrewed test flight of an Orion capsule, was slated to launch in late August and early September but scrubbed twice due to hardware issues while at pad 39B. After a successful fueling test last week, NASA officials were confident in proceeding with a Sept. 27 launch attempt but had to delay as Ian's projected path became more certain.

The next two-week opportunity to launch opens Oct. 17, but it remains to be seen if NASA can ride out the storm, complete work on the rocket, then roll it back out to the pad in time. Teams in the VAB are expected to perform servicing operations like replacing batteries tied to the flight termination system, which destroys the rocket in the event of an emergency.

If that window isn't feasible, another opportunity opens Nov. 12 and closes after the 27th.

NASA preparations at Kennedy Space Center

More: NASA and SpaceX continue toward October 3 liftoff of Crew-5, but monitoring Hurricane Ian

Aside from Artemis, KSC personnel were also prepping facilities and hardware ahead of Ian's impacts, which are expected locally sometime Wednesday.

Derrol Nail, of NASA communications, said the spaceport entered HURCON III status early Tuesday. That means sustained winds in excess of 50 knots (58 mph) are expected within 48 hours.

"The HURCON III designation is where most of the preparations happen," Nail said. "They're gassing up vehicles, each organization is going through specific checklists particular to them, and employees have been instructed to start preparing their workplace for the storm."

If condition appear to be severe enough, KSC could assign the ride-out team, or ROT, to stay behind in the Launch Control Center attached to the VAB. Though the team hasn't been told to report for duty quite yet, Nail said it "could be likely based on the latest forecast."

The ROT is responsible for keeping essential infrastructure working during the storm, as well as performing an initial damage assessment afterward. Then the DART, or damage assessment recovery team, would move in to relieve them.

Overall, KSC remains open and all gates are open. Nail said if conditions appear to be bad enough, it would stay that way until the last minute and security would be instructed to close the three main entrances.

Space Force preparations

Hurricane Ian: What's closed, canceled on the Space Coast

At Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, which shares the spaceport with NASA, teams were also busy preparing for Ian's arrival. Both that facility and nearby Patrick Space Force Base entered HURCON IV on Monday. That warning means winds in excess of 50 knots (58 mph) could impact the bases within 72 hours.

A move to HURCON III, or 50-knot winds within 48 hours, was expected sometime Tuesday.

"SLD 45's priorities at Cape Canaveral SFS are to prevent loss of life or

property and quickly recover our ability to launch government and commercial payloads," Jerry Porter, chief of public affairs for Space Launch Delta 45, told FLORIDA TODAY.

"While launch providers are responsible for their own pads, we support by ensuring common infrastructure, such as roads and utilities, are protected and recovered. Specifically, we focus on debris mitigation from high winds and flooding control," Porter said.

Like NASA, the Space Force does sometimes assign "ride-out teams" to certain areas of the Cape and Patrick, but officials didn't anticipate that being necessary for Ian. Porter said teams would be on standby just in case.

And just like KSC, personnel were working to secure hardware, loose items that could be dislodged by Ian, hazardous rocket-related munitions, and more.

As for non-critical facilities at the Cape like restaurants and shopping, decisions on closures were in a wait-and-see pattern as Ian continued to meander and slow down on its approach to Florida. Porter said it did seem likely that restaurants and the Air Force Space and Missile Museum would temporarily close.

"Similarly, the base's overall opening status is determined by current conditions and is constantly under review," Porter said.

Impact to rocket launches

More: Live updates: How Hurricane Ian will affect the Space Coast

As of Tuesday, United Launch Alliance and SpaceX were still sticking to their timelines for upcoming launches. Both companies are capable of rolling out their rockets much more quickly than NASA's SLS, so storms can potentially be less impactful for comparatively smaller rockets like Atlas V and Falcon 9, respectively.

ULA confirmed it was still targeting 5:36 p.m. EDT Friday, Sept. 30, for its next launch of an Atlas V with two SES-owned commercial communications satellites. Launch Complex 41 will host.

SpaceX, meanwhile, is targeting no earlier than Sunday, Oct. 2, for a Falcon 9 liftoff from the Cape's Launch Complex 40. That was expected to be another mission flying Starlink internet satellites.

The company is also targeting no earlier than 12:45 p.m. EDT Monday, Oct. 3, for its next NASA-contracted flight to the International Space Station with three astronauts and one cosmonaut. Astronauts Josh Cassada, Nicole Mann, Koichi Wakata, and cosmonaut Anna Kikina were slated to arrive on the Space Coast from Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, on Monday but had to delay due to the storm.

"These are very disciplined decisions that we are used to making," Steve Stich, NASA's Commercial Crew program manager, told reporters Monday. "We'll work hand-in-hand with Kennedy Space Center to see how the center fares, and then at the right time, we'll bring the crew in."

Launching the six-month Crew Dragon mission from pad 39A on a Falcon 9 rocket would be a best-case scenario. Senior NASA managers on Monday said backup windows are available on Oct. 4 and 5, followed by 7 to 9.

It will mark SpaceX's sixth crewed flight under contract from NASA, also known as Crew-5. The first crewed mission was a demonstration so is not counted in the "Crew" designation.

Ian, however, is likely to impact at least some of these plans and delays are expected. For the latest, visit floridatoday.com/launchschedule.

Contact Emre Kelly at aekelly@floridatoday.com or 321-242-3715. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram at @EmreKelly.

This article originally appeared on Florida Today: Hurricane Ian: Artemis I rocket rolled back as NASA, Space Force prepare