March 1, 2024

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First astronaut missions to the moon since 1972 delayed by questions about heat shield and hardware readiness – Spaceflight Now

First astronaut missions to the moon since 1972 delayed by questions about heat shield and hardware readiness – Spaceflight Now

The Artemis 2 crew, standing from their Artemis spacecraft, discuss their planned trip around the moon with reporters at Kennedy Space Center. From left to right: Commander Reed Wiseman, Victor Glover, Christina Koch and Canadian astronaut Jeremy Hansen. Image: Adam Bernstein/Space Flight Now.

A quartet of astronauts will have to wait until next year before their trip around the moon. In a robust update Tuesday afternoon, NASA leadership announced that the next two missions in the Artemis program, the first to involve astronauts, will each be delayed by about a year.

Instead, the Artemis 2 mission, which was scheduled to lift off from Kennedy Space Center next November, will be launched no later than September 2025. The Artemis 3 mission, which will still feature the first manned landing on the moon, will be launched no later than September 2025. Since 1972, it has now been postponed to September 2026 at the earliest.

“As we remind everyone at every turn, safety is our top priority,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said. “Although challenges clearly lie ahead, our teams are making amazing progress.”

The Artemis 3 mission was expected to be delayed in November a report To Congress from the US Government Accountability Office (GAO). This report noted that another landing on the Moon would likely actually happen in early 2027 “if development takes as long as the average for major NASA projects.”

There are a few key elements causing the Artemis program's first crewed missions to be pushed back from their planned launch dates. There are some outstanding unknowns regarding the heat shield protecting the Orion crew capsule, some hardware that will need to be removed and replaced on Orion, and the items needed to explore the lunar surface, namely the spacesuits and lander, are both behind schedule.

“As you heard before the Artemis 1 flight, and as we'll talk about Artemis 2 and future missions, these are flight tests,” said Jim Frey, NASA's new associate administrator. “Developing, testing, learning and improving our knowledge is what we do and make sure that when we fly, we are successful.”

During his opening remarks, Amit Kshatriya, deputy associate administrator for the Moon to Mars Program and Exploration Systems Development Mission Directorate, said they have three priorities as they move forward with this work:

  1. safety
  2. Achieving comprehensive and systematic progress towards goals
  3. Learn from data collected during flight testing

Unresolved questions, lessons learned

More than a year after the Artemis 1 mission ended, there's still a key component that needs more work: the heat shield. Kshatriya said that when studying the heat shield, they saw what he described as “non-nominal stagnation of some of the coal that came out of the heat shield.”

The Orion crew capsule uses a skip maneuver to help deal with a temperature of about 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit that builds up as the capsule returns through Earth's atmosphere at a blistering speed of 25,000 miles per hour. Kshatriya said some pieces of the heat shield exploded during the first phase of re-entry.

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“When I talk about it, it sounds like there are some big pieces coming out of the car. That's not true,” Kshatriya said. “We're still putting that general timeline together. Of course, it is very difficult, based on the assets we have, to identify each one of them, but we did it. We went through every video we have from Orion, frame by frame, and from our external assets, to determine when this character began being edited. This was after we started climbing out of the first dive of the jump.

Inside the Multiple Payload Processing Facility at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, engineers and technicians perform heat shield inspections on the Orion spacecraft for the Artemis 1 mission. Orion returned to Kennedy on December 30, 2022, after landing in the Pacific Ocean on December 11 following a mission It took 25 days around the moon. Image: NASA

He said that while charring was expected — the heat shield is made of a removable material — the Kshatriyas said they did not expect it to be removed. In response to a reporter's question, he noted that had the crew been on board during the Artemis 1 mission, they would not have felt anything amiss from inside Orion since there was no excessive heating inside the cabin.

Kshatriya said that although it appeared the crew's safety was not threatened, they did not want to make any assumptions moving forward without more comprehensive data. The review to determine the root cause of the issue has continued throughout most of 2023 and is ongoing.

“We have to compile that data and update the comprehensive thermal, mechanical and physical models of this heat shield to make sure that before we try to come back from a second lunar return mission, as we will have from Artemis 2, that we are 100 minutes away from that,” Kshatriya said, “we are 100 percent confident that we understand.” The performance of this heat shield.

Other Orion obstacles

The heat shield that protects astronauts during reentry is not the only problem facing the Lockheed Martin spacecraft. Multiple crew modules are flowing at NASA's Kennedy Space Center, and while working on the capsule for the Artemis 3 mission, teams discovered that some circuits were faulty.

The same components passed acceptance testing before being installed on the spacecraft for use in the Artemis 2 mission, but failed the Artemis 3 inspection, Kshatriya said.

He said they discovered a flaw in the design of the circuit used in critical life support systems, especially the carbon dioxide purifier.

“Once we looked at the rationale for potentially using the system as is, it became very clear that it was unacceptable to accept those devices and we had to replace them,” Kshatriya said. “Given the current configuration of the spacecraft, accessing those components… will take us a long time to access. Every connector we touch as part of this replacement process will have to be tested after we are done and we will have to put the vehicle through full functional testing after that.”

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The replacement was the main driver of the Artemis 2 mission's new target launch date of September 2025, Kshatriya said.

Moreover, Kshatriya said, unlike the maiden flight of Orion and SLS, Artemis 2 will feature integrated abort capability. He said Orion is qualified to survive a quick escape away from a Space Launch System rocket, but some questions remain about the system's mechanics.

“We've found some instances where we think there may be some deficiencies in the performance of the electrical system, in particular, some of the batteries that we need to make sure we understand how they will withstand those environments,” he said. . “So, we are still very early in this investigation. We have not yet developed a path forward. We have multiple parallel options to fix this problem.”

Human-class spacesuits and landers

In addition to Artemis 2's mission delay issues, Artemis 3's journey has its own unique set of challenges. NASA leaders emphasized that for now, this will still be a manned landing on the Moon's south pole, which means the lander and spacesuits will have to be ready.

SpaceX has been awarded a $2.89 billion contract to help develop its Starship rocket as a dedicated human lander. In order for the lander to reach the lunar surface and back again, SpaceX will need a series of propellant transfer missions to fuel the tanker that will remain in Earth orbit. That tanker will then transfer its fuel to the Human Landing System (HLS) version of the spacecraft, which will rendezvous with the Orion spacecraft in lunar orbit.

During Tuesday's conference call, Jessica Jensen, SpaceX's vice president of customer operations, said it would take about 10 Starship launches to fully fuel an orbital tanker.

“That would be my rough guess at the moment, but it could be lower depending on how successful the first flight tests are or it could be a little bit higher,” she said.

The spacecraft moves away from the launch pad, trailing a thousand-foot exhaust plume. Image: Adam Bernstein/Space Flight Now.

In 2023, SpaceX launched the first two flight tests of its fully integrated Starship rocket from its Starbase facility near Boca Chica Beach in South Texas. Jensen said hardware for their third test flight should be ready later this month, and they expect to receive US Federal Aviation Administration approval for a launch in February.

There will be a demonstration of moving propellant inside a single Starship “where the goal is to transfer propellant from main tank to main tank,” Jensen said.

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There will also be an unmanned test landing on the moon using the spacecraft, which is now set for 2025.

Another big, distinct development element for the Artemis 3 mission is the spacesuits that will be worn for the first time on the Moon. NASA and Axiom Space were completing a preliminary design review for Artemis 3, Frye said.

“What we discovered in that review process and setting up their supply chain is some of what also impacted me [Artemis 3 launch] “History,” said Hurra.

What comes next?

In addition to all the work being done by NASA and its partners, there are still some other great evaluations to be done. Before the Artemis 4 mission, which is still scheduled for September 2028, NASA needs to launch the Power Propulsion Element (PPE) and Habitat and Logistics (HALO) modules of the Gateway space station.

Kshatriya said the plan was to launch the two in October 2025, but that has now been changed as well.

“We are now working with our industry partners at Maxar and Northrop Grumman to review the timeline for when it makes sense to launch this before Artemis 4,” Kshatriya said. “We think they have a great path to getting us there to support this mission, but we will update that timeline as well. We are doing everything we can to make sure our partners have enough time to do development properly and safely.”

Gateway's 12-kilowatt Power and Propulsion Element thrusters will make it the most powerful solar-powered electric spacecraft ever. Graphic: NASA

Artemis 4 was previously delayed in part to accommodate schedule delays for the upgraded Mobile Launcher platform and tower, which is needed to support the larger SLS Block 1B rocket.

Congressional leaders on Capitol Hill are among those closely monitoring the progress of the Artemis program. In a statement Tuesday evening, Democrats Zoe Lofgren and Eric Sorensen, ranking members of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, said the committee will hold a hearing next week to discuss “the cause and costs of the delays.” “.

“While we are disappointed to learn of Artemis’ delay today, we stand with NASA in its commitment to safety,” Lofgren and Sorensen said in a statement. “We support Artemis and its goal of returning astronauts to the Moon; We want these missions to be safe and successful. As we move forward to ensure Artemis stays on track, we must understand the challenges and delays of this complex effort.

“The Artemis program is of great importance to our nation. It will inspire the next generation, strengthen our industry and international partnerships, and demonstrate the capabilities needed to eventually send humans to Mars.”