The successful end of NASA’s moon mission shifts the focus to SpaceX

The successful end of NASA’s moon mission shifts the focus to SpaceX

Suspended under parachutes, an astronaut capsule without astronauts made a gentle splash in the Pacific on Sunday, ending NASA’s Artemis I mission to the moon.

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

The Artemis program is the successor to Apollo, and after years of delays and a rising price tag, the new rocket and spacecraft that will carry astronauts back to the moon performed as well as administrators could have hoped. the mission

“This was a challenging mission,” Mike Sarafin, the Artemis mission manager, said during a news conference after the crash. “And that’s what mission success looks like.”

The trip to the moon capped a year of spectacular success for NASA. Its James Webb Space Telescope, which launched nearly a year ago, began sending back stunning images of the cosmos this summer. Its DART mission demonstrated in September that hitting an asteroid on purpose could protect Earth in the future if a deadly space rock is discovered on a collision course with our planet.

With the conclusion of Artemis I, 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 into space, to land astronauts on the Moon.

Shortly after noon EST on Sunday, the Orion crew capsule, where astronauts will sit during future flights, re-entered Earth’s atmosphere at 24,500 miles per hour. This was the last major goal of the mission: to demonstrate that the capsule’s heat shield could withstand temperatures of up to 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

By design, the capsule bounced into the upper layer of air before re-entering a second time. It was the first time that a capsule designed for astronauts performed this maneuver, known as skip-entry, which allows a more precise direction to the landing site. As expected, there were two blackouts in communications, as the heat from the capsule’s encounter with the atmosphere created electrically charged gases that jammed radio signals.

Before and after the blackouts, live video from outside Orion’s window showed stunning views of the ever-growing Earth.

At 12:40 p.m. ET, the capsule settled in the Pacific Ocean off Mexico’s Baja Peninsula. Recovery crews aboard the USS Portland experienced high winds and rough seas with waves four to five feet high.

Over the next several hours, recovery crews worked to remove Orion from the water. It will then return to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida for a detailed inspection.

The capsule and the space launch system, a giant new rocket, are key parts of Artemis, which aims to land astronauts on the moon near its south pole as early as 2025.

During Artemis I’s 26 days, bugs appeared as expected, but the flight appeared to be free of major malfunctions that would require lengthy investigation and redesign.

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

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

“From my perspective, it’s certainly lived up to expectations, if not more,” said Jeff Bingham, a former Republican aide to the Senate subcommittee that shaped the 2010 legislation that led the NASA to build the space launch system, in an interview. “I feel good that what we set out to do is being accomplished.”

Even Lori Garver, a former NASA deputy administrator who preferred to turn to private companies to create more innovative rocket designs that could have been built faster and cheaper, acknowledged that the Artemis I flight went smoothly.

“It’s great that it works,” he said in an interview. “It’s a great relief and excitement at NASA.”

The space agency now appears to be in good shape to launch the next mission, Artemis II, as planned in 2024. That flight will send four astronauts to the Moon, without landing, and then return to Earth.

Vanessa Wyche, director of the Johnson Space Center, said NASA planned to name the Artemis II crew members early next year.

The moon landing is planned for the third Artemis mission, in which the Space Launch System and Orion will carry four astronauts into a large loop orbit around the moon. This task will not require capabilities beyond those demonstrated during Artemis I and Artemis II.

Hardware manufacturing for these missions is already underway. The Orion capsule for Artemis II is now under construction at the Kennedy Space Center. The service module for Orion, built by Airbus as part of the European Space Agency’s contributions to lunar missions, was delivered last year. This weekend, the bottom of the rocket that will launch Artemis III arrived at Kennedy for installation of the engines

“This is not just one flight and we’re done,” said Jim Free, associate administrator for NASA’s Exploration Systems Development Directorate.

But Artemis III will depend on a third necessary piece: a lander built by SpaceX. And for this part of the mission, Mr. Musk will have to pull off a series of technological marvels that have never been achieved before.

“I think all eyes start to turn to the landing at some point,” said Ms. Garver, whose work during the Obama administration helped lay the groundwork for SpaceX’s current program to carry astronauts to the International Space Station.

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

A long-promised Starship test launch into orbit has yet to occur, although a source of activity at the company’s development site in South Texas indicates that SpaceX is approaching

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

Two astronauts will transfer to the lander and head to the south polar region of the moon, spending nearly a week on the surface.

But getting the lander into lunar orbit won’t be easy.

For one, it will require at least three different starships. The Starship system is a two-stage rocket: a reusable booster known as the Super Heavy with the Starship spacecraft on top. After reaching orbit, the tanks of the second stage, the Starship spacecraft, will be nearly empty, without enough propellant to head for the Moon.

So SpaceX will first launch a spacecraft that will essentially serve as an in-orbit gas station. It will then perform a series of releases: Mr. Musk has said no more than eight will be required — of a tanker version of the Starship to carry propellant to the Starship gas station.

The final launch will be the Starship lunar lander, which will approach the Starship gas station in orbit and fill its tanks. The lunar lander will finally be ready to head to the Moon.

While NASA’s Space Launch System rocket flies only once and all the parts fall into the ocean as debris, SpaceX’s spacecraft are designed to be completely reusable. This will make launches frequent and inexpensive, says Mr. Musk.

Before Artemis III, SpaceX must first conduct an unmanned test to demonstrate that it can indeed perform a rapid succession of starship launches, reliably transfer propellants into orbit, and safely land on the Moon.

The idea of ​​refueling in space dates back decades, but has yet to be tested.

“Knowing what I think I know about the state of our microgravity transfer research, we have a long way to go,” said Mr. Dumbacher.

Rocket launches also remain risky, so the multitude of starship launches required for Artemis III increases the chances of one of them failing, wrecking the entire effort.

By transferring the development of the lunar landing to SpaceX, NASA hopes that the innovative approach of Mr. Musk would provide a faster landing at a lower cost than a NASA-led program could.

The flip side is that if SpaceX encounters more difficult technical challenges than expected, NASA won’t have an immediate alternative to fall back on. The agency has just received proposals from other companies for a second lander design, but the second lander design is intended for a later mission to the moon. (In November, NASA awarded SpaceX an additional $1.15 billion to provide the lander for Artemis IV.)

Mr. Musk has also added to his portfolio with the purchase of Twitter, where the turmoil that has followed his takeover of the social media company is now consuming much of his time and attention.

“This is new,” said Mrs. Garver. “Elon’s concerns have increased,” although she said she wasn’t sure how much they directly affect work at SpaceX.

The information i CNBC reported last month that SpaceX has shaken up the leadership of its Texas Starship operation with Gwynne Shotwell, president of SpaceX, and Mark Juncosa, the company’s vice president of vehicle engineering, now overseeing the site.

Last week, Mr. Musk said on Twitter who continues to oversee both SpaceX and Tesla, his electric car company, “but the teams there are so good that I often don’t need much.”

Mr Bingham said he hoped Starship would succeed, but “There’s a lot of uncertainty in there and it’s worrying”.

During the press conference, Bill Nelson, the administrator of NASA, said that he was asking Mr. Free all the time if SpaceX was ready. “And the answer comes back to me: ‘Yes, and in some cases, exceeding,'” said Mr. Nelson.

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