A critical test of NASA’s upcoming Space Launch System rocket starts this Friday, but the live broadcast of the wet dress rehearsal promises to be a dull and silent affair owing to security concerns. We live in uncertain times, no question, but some experts say this muzzling is over the top and unhelpful.
It’s been nearly two weeks since SLS rolled out to launch pad 39B at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The 322-foot-tall rocket, after tons of anticipation, is nearly ready for prime time. All that’s needed now is a successful wet dress rehearsal, in which propellant will be loaded into the launcher’s tanks and a countdown rehearsed by the launch team.
“It’s the last design verification prior to launch,” Tom Whitmeyer, deputy associate administrator for common exploration systems development at NASA, said today at a media teleconference. “We could learn something,” he said, but ultimately the goal is to “make it through the count” and see how SLS performs during an actual test. The team will then evaluate the data and, assuming everything’s fine, announce a date for the inaugural launch of SLS—the Artemis 1 mission—during the week of April 11.
The wet dress rehearsal is scheduled to start on Friday, April 1 at 5:00 p.m. EDT and end with the draining of the tanks on Sunday, April 3 at roughly 4:30 p.m. EDT. NASA will broadcast the entire test at the Kennedy Newsroom YouTube channel, but “without audio or commentary,” according to a press release. And as Whitmeyer explained at the media conference, reporters won’t have the usual access to detailed countdown info.
That’s a surprise, to say the least. A lot goes on during wet dress rehearsals, but this time around we won’t get to follow along in real-time. NASA says some details will be made available on its social media platforms, including the Artemis blog, but the extent to which it will share information is unknown.
The reason for the hush-hush has to do with International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) concerns having to do with the sharing, or “exporting,” of sensitive information. In the case of SLS, Whitmeyer said America’s rivals could deduce cryogenic timing information to assist in the development of ballistic missile systems. Accordingly, NASA will be “avoiding any specific timing, flow, or other types of things that would inadvertently give an indication towards specific characteristics of the operations that we’re going through.”
Whitmeyer added that NASA is being extra cautious given “the environment we’re in nowadays,” and said that the space agency can’t risk the disclosure of sensitive information. He’s likely referring to the Russian invasion of Ukraine and recent weapons tests in North Korea.
Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, isn’t convinced an ITAR-enforced silence during the SLS wet dress rehearsal will do any good.
“The problem with any such security mandate is that it is typically not being enforced by the people who have the necessary technical understanding to know what is actually helpful to others,” such as China, for example, or “what wouldn’t be helpful,” he told me in an email. “And so, it gets enforced wildly over-enthusiastically, to the point that the degree to which it impedes free communication is more harmful than any risk that it protects against.”
Whitmeyer said journalists will be provided with a general countdown timeline later this week and that a post-test media teleconference will take place on Monday, April 4.
As for the (eventual) Artemis 1 mission, Whitmeyer is hopeful that NASA will “provide the normal calls” during the real launch. That would be grand, but it’s clear we no longer live in “normal” times.