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Third time’s the charm? NASA will attempt to launch its mega moon rocket early tomorrow morning

NASA is set to launch the Artemis I mission on November 16, with agency officials saying they were prepared to accept the risks from minor damage the launch system incurred from Hurricane Nicole last week.

Tonight’s attempt, which has a two-hour launch window opening at 1:04 a.m. EST (10:04 PM Pacific), could kick-start NASA’s ambitious Artemis lunar exploration program. It’s under that program that NASA is hoping to send the first woman and person of color to the moon before the end of the decade. NASA’s hyping the launch with the hashtag #wearegoing and one certainly hopes, after technical snafus, two separate hurricane landfalls, cost overruns and a nearly two-decades-long development timeline that this is the case tomorrow.

This mission, dubbed Artemis I, is chiefly a test of the Orion spacecraft rather than the 32-story-tall Space Launch System (which is expendable — there is no “testing” it, per se). Orion, which is uncrewed for this launch, will take a 25-day journey around the moon before returning to Earth and splashing down in the ocean. NASA wants to understand how its heat shield fares during the grueling atmospheric reentry process and get valuable data on its flight through lunar orbit.

Both the rocket and the spacecraft incurred minor damage after the most recent brush with a hurricane last week. As NASA manager explained in a media briefing on November 14, technicians had to change out a component of an electrical connector and also examined the potential risks related to some material that had stripped away from the Orion spacecraft. Overall, they said the mission management team felt the risks were at an acceptable level.

“We want to take as much risk out of the system as we can, but there is risk in there and we need to be prepared for that,” Jim Free, NASA’s associate administrator for exploration systems development, said in a prelaunch briefing on Monday.

NASA has attempted to launch the vehicle on two separate occasions. The first, in August, was scrubbed due to a hydrogen bleed line issue with one of the rocket’s four core stage engines; the second attempt a few days later also called off for the same reason. Should this third launch attempt not take place for whatever reason, the agency will have more opportunities on November 19 and 25.

The stakes for a launch in general are very high, but the stakes for this launch in particular are not very high — which is to say, it’s very, very important to launch the SLS and it’s important it’s successful, but whether that happens tonight, or November 19, is not of huge importance. In some ways, the significance of NASA’s SLS cannot be overstated: A successful mission would vindicate the billions of dollars spent developing and building this rocket, for one thing. It would also give real energy to the agency’s Artemis program and finally, finally mark the beginning of humanity’s return to the moon. But whether that happens tomorrow, or November 19, or an even later date, is relatively immaterial to the success of the program overall.

As Free said during a separate media briefing last week, “We’re never going to get to Artemis II if Artemis I isn’t successful.”

You can watch the launch live by clicking the video above. The agency will begin coverage of the mission at 7:30 PM pacific time, 10:30 local time in Florida.