December 3, 2023

A crew-less astronaut capsule dangled under a parachute and made a gentle splash in the Pacific Ocean Sunday, wrapping up NASA’s Artemis 1 mission to the moon.

The conclusion of the uncrewed test flight coincided with the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 17 moon landing, the last time NASA astronauts walked on the moon.

After years of delays and mounting price tags on the Artemis program, the successor to the Apollo program, work on a new rocket and spacecraft to return astronauts to the Moon is progressing as mission managers had hoped.

“A new day has come and the Artemis generation will take us there,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said on NASA TV after the splash.

The trip to the moon caps off a hugely successful year for NASA. Launched about a year ago, the James Webb Space Telescope began sending back breathtaking images of the universe this summer. Its DART mission showed in September that deliberately hitting an asteroid could protect Earth in the future if deadly space rocks are found during a collision with our planet.

With Artemis I wrapped up, more attention will turn to SpaceX, the private rocket company founded by Elon Musk. NASA is relying on a version of Starship, the company’s next-generation spacecraft that has yet to fly to space, to send astronauts to the moon.

On Sunday, just after noon ET, the Orion crew module — where the astronauts will sit on future flights — re-entered Earth’s atmosphere at 24,500 miles per hour. That’s the mission’s final major goal: proving that the capsule’s heat shield can withstand temperatures as high as 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

By design, the capsule bounces off the upper layer of air before re-entering a second time. It’s the first time a capsule designed for astronauts has performed the maneuver, known as a jump-entry, to steer more precisely toward the landing site. Communications were interrupted twice, as expected, as heat from the encounter with the atmosphere created charged gases around the capsule, blocking radio signals.

Before and after the blackout, real-time video from Orion’s window showed an impressive growing Earth.

At 12:40 p.m. ET, the capsule docked in the Pacific Ocean near Mexico’s Baja Peninsula. Ship rescuers aboard the aircraft carrier USS Portland encountered high winds and rough seas with waves as high as four to five feet.

For the next few hours, rescuers struggled to pull Orion out of the water. It will return to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida for inspection.

The capsule and Space Launch System, a massive new rocket, are key components of Artemis, which aims to land astronauts on the Moon near its south pole as early as 2025.

“If you asked me to grade it, I’d give us an A+,” Catherine Kerner, NASA’s deputy associate administrator for exploration systems development, said on NASA TV as Orion approached Earth Sunday morning. “We’re always learning how the spacecraft works, we’re always learning how to fly this amazing machine.”

During the 26 days of Artemis I, there were minor glitches as expected, but the flight appeared to be free of major glitches that required lengthy investigations and redesigns.

“It’s a good demonstration that these things work,” said Daniel L. Dumbacher, executive director of the National Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. Mr. Dumbacher oversaw early work on the Space Launch System when he was the senior human spaceflight officer at NASA more than a decade ago.

Although the mission was years behind schedule and billions of dollars over budget, the flight provided some validation for NASA’s traditional government operations approach to developing complex space hardware.

“From my perspective, it definitely met expectations, if not more,” said Jeff Bingham, a former top Republican aide on a Senate subcommittee that worked out in 2010 guidelines directing NASA to build spaceflights. Launch system legislation. “I’m delighted with the fact that our intentions are being realized.”

Even Lori Garver, former deputy administrator of NASA, admitted that the Artemis 1 flight was so smooth that he was inclined to turn to private companies to come up with more innovative rockets designs that could have been built faster and cheaper.

“It’s amazing that it works,” she said. “This is a huge source of relief and excitement for NASA.”

The space agency now appears to be in good shape to launch its next mission, Artemis II, on schedule in 2024. The flight will take four astronauts to the moon without landing and return to Earth.

A third Artemis mission is planned to land on the moon, in which the Space Launch System and Orion will transport four astronauts into a large circular orbit around the moon. The mission does not require beyond the capabilities demonstrated during Artemis I and Artemis II.

Building hardware for these tasks is already underway. Much of the Orion capsule for Artemis II has already been built at Kennedy Space Center. The Airbus-built service module for Orion was delivered last year as part of the European Space Agency’s contribution to the lunar mission.This weekend, the base of the rocket that will launch Artemis III Arrive at Kennedy for installation.

But Artemis III will depend on a third must-have: a SpaceX-built lander. For this part of the task, Mr Musk’s company will have to pull off a series of technological marvels that have never been achieved before.

“I think at some point all eyes start turning to the lander,” said Ms. Garver, whose work during the Obama administration laid the groundwork for SpaceX’s current plan to send astronauts to the International Space Station.

NASA awarded SpaceX a $2.9 billion contract in 2021 to develop and build a lunar lander for Artemis III, a variant of the giant Starship rocket.

The long-promised orbital test launch of Starship has yet to materialize, although the hustle and bustle of activity at the company’s South Texas development site suggests SpaceX is getting closer to a launch.

For Artemis III, the lander will dock with the Orion spacecraft above the Moon.

The two astronauts will travel to the south pole region of the moon on the lander, where they will stay on the surface of the moon for nearly a week.

But getting a lander into lunar orbit is no easy task.

For one thing, it requires at least three different starships. The Starship system is a two-stage rocket: a reusable booster, called Super Heavy, with the Starship spacecraft on top. After reaching orbit, the second-stage fuel tank — Starship — was nearly empty, and there wasn’t enough propellant to go to the Moon.

So SpaceX will start by launching a Starship, which will essentially serve as a refueling station in orbit. Then, it will do a series of launches — Mr. Musk said no more than eight Will need – a tanker version of Starship to deliver the propellant to the gas station Starship.

The final launch is the lunar lander Starship, which will sneak up to the orbiting gas station Starship and fill up its tanks. The lunar lander will finally be ready to travel to the moon.

While NASA’s Space Launch System rocket only flies once and all debris ends up in the ocean as trash, SpaceX’s Starship is designed to be fully reusable. That would make launches more frequent and cheaper, Mr. Musk said.

Before Artemis III, SpaceX will first conduct an uncrewed test to prove that it can indeed perform a quick succession of Starship launches, reliably transfer propellant in orbit and land safely on the Moon.

The idea of ​​refueling in space dates back decades, but remains largely untested.

“From what I know of the current state of microgravity propellant transfer research, we have a long way to go,” Mr. Dumbacher said.

Rocket launches also remain risky, so the large number of starship launches required for Artemis III increases the likelihood that one of them will fail, thereby derailing the entire effort.

By handing over development of the lunar lander to SpaceX, NASA hopes Mr Musk’s company’s innovative approach will deliver landers faster and at a lower cost than NASA-led programs.

The downside is that if SpaceX finds the technical challenges more difficult than expected, NASA won’t have an immediate alternative to turn to. The agency has just received proposals from other companies for a second lander design, but the second lander design is for future lunar missions. (In November, NASA awarded SpaceX an additional $1.15 billion to provide a lander for Artemis IV.)

Mr. Musk has also added to his corporate portfolio with the acquisition of Twitter, the turmoil since his takeover of the social media company now takes up much of his time and attention.

“It’s new,” Ms. Garver said. “Elon’s concerns have escalated,” though she said she wasn’t sure how much of an immediate impact these would have on SpaceX’s work.

CNBC reported last month SpaceX has reshuffled the leadership of its Texas Starship operations, with SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell and Mark Juncosa, the company’s vice president of vehicle engineering, now overseeing the site.

last week, Mr Musk tweeted He went on to oversee SpaceX and his electric car company, Tesla, “but the team there is so good that I usually don’t need anything.”

Mr Bingham said he hoped Starship would succeed, but “there’s a lot of uncertainty out there, which is worrying”.

If SpaceX does succeed with Starship, NASA will fund much of the development of a spacecraft capable of sending astronauts to Mars for the cheap basement price of a lunar lander.

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