First crewed mission is crucial next step toward the Moon and Mars.
Inside the high bay of the Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout Building at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida, teams are working on an Orion spacecraft, preparing it for Artemis II. The mission is scheduled to carry four astronauts around the Moon in late 2024, eventually reaching 6,400 miles beyond the far side of the lunar surface. Only the Apollo 13 astronauts travelled further into space.
The crew module arrived at KSC in 2021. Work passed another significant milestone on August 13 when engineers completed a series of acoustic tests, using stacks of large speakers to simulate the raucous vibrations of launch and other parts of the mission. Microphones and accelerometers collected data that is being analyzed now. This fall, technicians will likely join the crew module with the European Service Module, the primary power and propulsion component of the Orion spacecraft.
Artemis II begins with two elliptical orbits of Earth, the first reaching an apogee of 1,200 nautical miles, the second reaching much further into space, with an apogee of 38,000 nautical miles. These orbits will be propelled by the Space Launch System’s Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage and give the crew more than 24 hours near Earth to test the Orion spacecraft’s life support systems, the spacesuits that will protect them in deep space, and Orion’s navigation capabilities and communication networks.
The mission is designed to safely test the hardware’s capabilities with a crew aboard. If the spacecraft performs well on the first two orbits, Orion will perform a translunar injection (TLI) burn using the European Service Module and travel about 230,000 miles from Earth in a large figure eight, passing behind the far side of the Moon and using lunar gravity to assist the spacecraft on its return to Earth. The mission builds on the success of Artemis I, an uncrewed 25-day test flight that traveled 1.4 million miles, reentering Earth’s atmosphere on Dec. 11, 2022, at 24,581 miles an hour.
“… Artemis I was a great mission. We learned so much from it. The success was incredible. The only thing that carries over from that mission is the engineering. We’re using all new hardware. So that vigilance of putting that hardware together and calling out when things are not right or there’s a concern is really important…,” said Jim Free, NASA Associate Administrator for Exploration Systems Development, speaking at a recent NASA press conference.
Earlier this month, the Artemis II crew—Commander Reid Wiseman, Pilot Victor Glover, and Mission Specialists Christina Hammock Koch and Jeremy Hansen—saw their Orion spacecraft for the first time. NASA announced the crew members on April 3, 2023. Following an initial media blitz, the astronauts have since packed their schedules with mission preparation, including studying spacecraft systems at Johnson Space Center, meeting with engineers at Lockheed Martin’s facilities in Denver, and visiting the recovery team at Naval Base San Diego.
“Well, we made it to Kennedy,” Wiseman said at the same NASA press conference. “…We’re fired up. It [was] a great day yesterday when you walk around the corner at the Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout facility and there’s your spacecraft that you’re going to ride in, the ship as they call it over there. And we got to look inside and hang out and it was really quite fascinating.”
“We hear about the hardware,” Wiseman said. “…Most of you saw it this afternoon with the spacecraft. Those that have been in [the Michoud Assembly Facility] have seen the booster. Out in Utah, our solid rocket booster segments are getting ready to be shipped down here for stacking. But, as we go around and see the hardware, the thing that blows us away is the quality and the youthfulness of the people that are working on this program—these Americans, these Europeans, our Canadian allies to the north. When you get in these small rooms of 15 to 20 people and you see not only how hard they’re working but how motivated they are, how excited they are to be a part of this every single day. … It is totally awesome.”
NASA continues to research an open issue from Artemis I concerning the heat shield. Some of the expected char material was ablated differently than computer models and ground testing predicted. Free said that NASA has performed two tests in the Arc Jet Complex at Ames Research Center, with a third series scheduled, focusing on the root cause. In the testing, gases are heated to extreme temperatures and are directed at supersonic/hypersonic speeds to a test sample in a vacuum chamber, simulating atmospheric reentry.
“We have a fault tree that we’ve been working down. We have some theories on what the root cause might be. We won’t talk about flight rationale until we get through root cause. … I don’t want the team to think about flight rationale because as soon as you do that, you start to jump past things that might be lurking as a root cause that you might miss. … We’ve also done tests at Langley. We’re doing some tests down at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton. So, we’re using facilities across the country. I think we’re on a path to that root cause with the final disposition in April,” Free said.
“Obviously we’re going to make the right decision to keep them safe. If that decision is we have to do something drastic, then we’ll do that. But right now, we’re on a path to press to get to the root cause and then we’ll make the final determination from there,” Free added.
Artemis II is a critical next step in the Artemis Program, which will establish a long-term human presence at the Moon before an eventual human mission to Mars. The mission will enable NASA to better understand the capabilities of the Orion spacecraft during a crewed flight ahead of Artemis III, currently scheduled to land astronauts near the south pole of the Moon in late 2025.