Orion Program Completes Key Review for Artemis I

NASA’s Orion Program has completed the System Acceptance Review and Design Certification Review to certify the Artemis I spacecraft is fit for flight, ready to venture from Earth to the lunar vicinity, and return home for landing and recovery.

The review examined every spacecraft system, all test data, inspection reports, and analyses that support verification, to ensure every aspect of the spacecraft has the right technical maturity.

In effect, the review gives the stamp of approval to the entire spacecraft development effort and is the final formal milestone to pass before integration with the Space Launch System rocket.

In addition to spacecraft design, the review certified all reliability and safety analyses, production quality and configuration management systems, and operations manuals.

Orion, the Space Launch System, and Exploration Ground Systems programs are foundational elements of the Artemis program, beginning with Artemis I, the first integrated flight test of Orion and SLS next year. Artemis II will follow as the first human mission, taking astronauts farther into space than ever before.

Final Launch Abort System Motor Arrives for Artemis II Crewed Mission

The Artemis II attitude control motor inside the Launch Abort System Facility at Kennedy Space Center on Aug. 28, 2020.
The attitude control motor for the Artemis II mission arrives in the Launch Abort System Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Aug. 28, 2020. Photo credit NASA/Ben Smegelsky

The last of three motors required to assemble the Launch Abort System for NASA’s Artemis II mission–the first crewed mission of the Orion spacecraft–arrived at Kennedy Space Center in Florida on August 28. The attitude control motor (ACM) was delivered by truck from Northrop Grumman’s manufacturing facility in Maryland, to the Launch Abort System Facility (LASF) at Kennedy.

During launch of Orion atop the agency’s Space Launch System rocket, the LAS motors work together to separate the spacecraft from the rocket in the unlikely event of an emergency during launch. The LAS includes three motors – the launch abort motor, the jettison motor, and the attitude control motor—that once activated, will steer the spacecraft carrying the astronauts to safety. The launch abort and attitude control motors were manufactured by Northrop Grumman; the jettison motor was manufactured by Aerojet Rocketdyne.

The ACM operates to keep Orion’s crew module on a controlled flight path in the event it needs to jettison and steer away from the rocket. It then reorients the crew module for parachute deployment and landing. The motor consists of a solid propellant gas generator, with eight proportional valves equally spaced around the outside of the 32-inch diameter motor. Together, the valves can exert up to 7,000 pounds of steering force to the vehicle in any direction upon command from the crew module.

Inside the LASF, the motor will be placed on a special trailer for future integration with the rest of the LAS elements. It will remain in the LASF midbay, where the Artemis I LAS is being integrated with its designated crew and service module for its mission next year.

Artemis II is the first crewed flight in a series of increasingly complex missions to the Moon that will lay the foundation for exploration of Mars and beyond. Artemis II will confirm all of the Orion spacecraft’s systems operate as designed in the actual environment of deep space with astronauts aboard. As part of the Artemis program, NASA will send the first woman and next man to the Moon in 2024.

Eyes Forward as Artemis Missions Set to Begin Next Year

Jumping headfirst into the Artemis program has been one of the highlights in my transition as the associate administrator for human spaceflight. With an ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, there was little time for a transition period as mission essential work needed to continue as safely as possible.

Already within my short time on the job, NASA is checking-off key milestones and marching swiftly toward Artemis I. That mission, the first uncrewed flight test of our powerful Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and Orion spacecraft, is just a little more than a year away from launch.

I remain incredibly impressed by our team’s commitment to landing the first woman and next man on the Moon in 2024, and we all know that Artemis I is a critical step toward realizing that goal. A lot of the hard work is behind us, but it is not done yet. We’re gaining momentum– and it is tangible across the agency.

Already this year, NASA has finished modifications and upgrades to ready Launch Pad 39B at our Kennedy Space Center in Florida for the mission. Teams there have also:

  • Simulated portions of the launch countdown with a realistic run-through of the terminal count
  • Delivered the launch vehicle stage adapter, which connects the core stage and the upper stage of the rocket
  • Conducted an Orion recovery test in the Pacific Ocean, validating timelines for recovery operations
  • Practiced stacking operations with pathfinder segments for the solid rocket boosters
  • Received booster segments for the mission to begin processing for launch

The agency also completed a rigorous test campaign ahead of schedule on the Orion spacecraft, subjecting it to the extreme temperatures and electromagnetic conditions expected during flight. Orion is now in final assembly and checkout for launch, including installation of the spacecraft’s four solar arrays.

On the SLS side of the house, NASA completed structural testing on the upper part of the rocket and four core stages structures. The rocket’s core stage for the first mission is the last piece of hardware that remains to be delivered to Kennedy. It is currently secured in a test stand at NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Mississippi and has completed four of the eight tests in the Green Run test series.

We are currently working our way through the fifth test to check out the thrust vector controls and related hydraulics. While we keep an eye on hurricane season, we continue to strive to conduct the final test by the end of October with the current pace of testing. During that test, engineers will fire all four RS-25 engines simultaneously, aiming to drain the fueled tanks in eight minutes, just as during flight. After the hot fire test, crews will refurbish, inspect, and configure the stage for shipment to Kennedy. The next time the rocket’s engines ignite, Artemis I will be taking flight.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, NASA also completed a detailed cost and schedule assessment for Artemis I and established a new agency commitment for launch readiness by November 2021. While it is too early to predict the full impact of COVID-19, we are confident a November 2021 date is achievable with the recent pace of progress, and a successful Green Run hot fire test will enable us to better predict a target launch date for the mission.

Taking this new launch readiness date into account, NASA also aligned the development costs for the SLS and Exploration Ground Systems programs through Artemis I and established new cost commitments. The new development baseline cost for SLS is $9.1 billion, and the commitment for the initial ground systems capability to support the mission is now $2.4 billion. NASA’s cost and schedule commitment for Orion currently remains within original targets and is tied to demonstrating the capability to fly crew on the Artemis II mission by 2023.

NASA has notified Congress of these new commitments, and we are working at the best possible pace toward launch, including streamlining operational flow at Kennedy and assessing opportunities to further improve the efficiency of our integration activities. Now that the majority of the design development is done, as well as the first time build and an extensive test program, a lot of effort is behind us. We are well into builds for future missions, and we are seeing significantly improved build rates, high quality work, and efficiencies across the board. Moving forward, we aim to continue to reduce production costs for the world’s most capable launch system, as we take on new challenges of our lunar exploration program.

We remain focused on the work ahead under the Artemis program, for the first SLS and Orion mission as well as future missions with crew, including Artemis III that will send the next astronauts to the surface of the Moon. With those kind of goals, there’s nowhere else in the world I’d rather be working. And yet, Artemis plans are just one of many great things underway within human spaceflight and across the agency – with much more ahead.

NASA is on track to achieve great things with robots, technology and humans on and around the Moon. From the Moon, and soon to Mars, I hope you’re ready to jump in too.

-Kathy Lueders

First Piece of Artemis III Orion Delivered to NASA

Artemis III cone panel arrives at NASA Michoud Assembly Facility. 

The first piece of the Orion spacecraft’s pressure vessel for Artemis III – the mission that will land the first woman and next man on the Moon in 2024 – has arrived at NASA. The cone panel that will house the windows astronauts will use to view the Moon was designed by Orion’s lead contractor, Lockheed Martin, and manufactured by AMRO Fabricating Corp., of South El Monte, California. It arrived at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans on Aug. 21. In the coming months, the other six elements of the pressure vessel will arrive at Michoud where they will be welded together to build the underlying structure of Orion. The pressure vessel is Orion’s primary structure that holds the pressurized atmosphere astronauts will breathe and work in while in the vacuum of deep space. Orion, the Space Launch System, and Exploration Ground Systems programs are foundational elements of the Artemis program, beginning with Artemis I, the first integrated flight test of Orion and SLS next year. Artemis II will follow as the first crewed mission, taking humans farther into space than ever before.

Artemis I Launch Team Fires Up Fueling Simulation

The Artemis I launch team rehearses loading the SLS rocket with propellants on Aug. 18, 2020.
Inside the Launch Control Center’s Firing Room 1 at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, members of the Artemis I launch team rehearse the procedures for fueling the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket with super cold propellants, or cryogenics, on Aug. 18, 2020. Photo credit: NASA/Chad Siwik

The launch team for Artemis I is back in the firing room at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center for more practice. The team conducted a simulation on the procedures for cryogenic loading, or fueling the Space Launch System rocket with super cold propellants. During simulations potential problems are introduced to the team to test the application of firing room tools, processes, and procedures.

The Exploration Ground Systems team of launch controllers who will oversee the countdown and liftoff of the SLS rocket and Orion spacecraft will be practicing the procedures several more times ahead of launch. Special protocols have been put in place to keep personnel safe and healthy, including limiting personnel in the firing room, using acrylic dividers and adjusting assigned seating for the cryo team.

Orion Window Panel Complete for Front-Row View on Artemis Moon Mission

As NASA’s Orion spacecraft approaches the Moon on the Artemis III mission to put the first woman and next man on the lunar surface, the crew will get a glimpse through the spacecraft’s windows.

The first element machined for the Artemis III Orion crew module – a cone panel with openings for windows which will provide that spectacular view – was designed by Orion’s lead contractor, Lockheed Martin, and manufactured by AMRO Fabricating Corp., of South El Monte, California. The completed panel is on its way to NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility near New Orleans, Louisiana, where engineers will weld it with other panels as part of Orion’s pressure vessel.

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NASA Begins Installing Orion Adapter for First Artemis Moon Flight

Technicians at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida are working to install an adapter that will connect the Orion spacecraft to its rocket for the Artemis I mission around the Moon. This is one of the final major hardware operations for Orion inside the Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout Building prior to integration with the Space Launch System rocket.

The spacecraft adapter cone (seen at the bottom of the stack pictured above) connects to the bottom of Orion’s service module and will later join another adapter connected to the top of the rocket’s interim cryogenic propulsion stage. During the process to install the cone on Orion, the spacecraft is lifted out of the Final Assembly and Systems Testing, or FAST, cell and placed into the Super Station support fixture.

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NASA Motor Test Helps Evaluate New SLS Materials

A test firing with a 24-inch solid rocket booster on Aug. 6 at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama will help engineers evaluate a new cleaning solvent for Space Launch System (SLS) booster nozzles. Tests with the smaller motor segment provides data so that engineers can determine if the new material warrants further pursuit for use on future SLS rockets. (NASA/Tyson Eason)

Every detail that goes into space exploration matters. While habitat design or making sure a rocket is powerful enough to launch supplies are obviously important, what may be less apparent are the smaller things, including the solvents used in manufacturing materials for spaceflight.

On Aug. 6, a 22-second hot fire test in the East Test Area at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, helped NASA and Northrop Grumman Corporation in Promontory, Utah – the solid rocket booster prime contractor – evaluate a new nozzle material for the Space Launch System (SLS) solid rocket boosters. These boosters produce more than 75 percent of the power to launch the rocket.

The nozzle construction enables the boosters to provide consistent performance while withstanding the 5,000 degree Fahrenheit flame produced as the solid fuel is burned to launch the rocket.  Such material changes are checked out in phases from sub-scale to full-scale tests and this 24-inch motor was a significant step in that process. Using a 24-inch-diameter, 20-foot-long sub-scale test motor that burned nearly 1,800 pounds of propellant and produced 23,000 pounds of thrust, the team collected data to help verify use of the solvent on future SLS flights beyond Artemis III.

“This 24-inch motor test is to evaluate the material in a solid rocket motor environment and make sure that we don’t get any unexpected changes in how it performs,” said Tim Lawrence, manager for motor and booster separation motor systems at Marshall.

While the solid rocket boosters that will be used on NASA’s Space Launch System – which this test supports – are 177 feet tall and 12 feet in diameter, the motor used in the test is still large enough to produce valuable data.

“This booster is only 24-inches but the ability to fire it in a test stand helps us get the data we need to confirm that we want to test it in a larger, full-scale test,” Dennis Strickland, the test conductor said.

In addition to data about the solvent’s effects on the material during motor operation, engineers also collected information about its behavior during booster assembly.

“The 24-inch motor is large enough that we were able to use the same processes to manufacture the nozzle as are used on the full-scale motor and that gives us confidence it will provide a good indication of full-scale performance,” Lawrence explained.

While the verification test was to primarily support the SLS rocket, the test data may also be used by other government agencies to help advance their solid rocket propulsion technology as NASA and the agencies routinely share data with other government agencies and industry. Data sharing enhances capabilities and maximizes the return on investment for the taxpayer.

NASA’s SLS booster is based on three decades of knowledge and experience gained with the space shuttle boosters and has been updated with the latest technology. The agency is working to design, develop, and test next-generation boosters that will power SLS flights after all available shuttle-era hardware is expended. NASA has cast segments for the Artemis I and Artemis II lunar missions, the first two SLS flights, and has begun casting the Artemis III mission. Northrop Grumman delivered the segments for Artemis I to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida on June 15.

SLS and the Orion spacecraft, along with the Gateway in orbit around the Moon, are NASA’s backbone for deep space exploration and the Artemis program, which will send the first woman and next man to the lunar surface by 2024. SLS is the only rocket that can send Orion, astronauts, and supplies to the Moon on a single mission.

Four Down, Four to Go: Artemis I Rocket Moves Closer to Hot Fire Test

The Space Launch System (SLS) rocket is completing the Green Run test for the rocket’s core stage, shown installed on the top left side of the B-2 Test Stand at NASA’s Stennis Space Center near Bay St. Louis, Mississippi. Credits: NASA/Stennis

The Space Launch System (SLS) rocket core stage for the Artemis I lunar mission has successfully completed its first four Green Run tests and is building on those tests for the next phase of checkout as engineers require more capability of the hardware before hot-firing the stage and its four powerful engines.

On Aug. 5, engineers at NASA’s Stennis Space Center near Bay St Louis, Mississippi, where the stage is loaded into the B-2 Test Stand, completed the fourth of eight planned tests of the 212-foot-tall core stage. For Test 4, engineers performed the initial functional checkout of the main propulsion system components to verify command and control operability (valve response, timing, etc.) and performed leak checks on the core stage-to-facility umbilical fluid and gas connections.

Green Run is a demanding series of eight tests and nearly 30 firsts: first loading of the propellant tanks, first flow through the propellant feed systems, first firing of all four engines, and first exposure of the stage to the vibrations and temperatures of launch.

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First Pieces of Future Gateway Living Quarters

The first pieces of flight hardware for Gateway’s Habitation and Logistics Outpost (HALO) have arrived at Thales Alenia Space Italy (TASI) sent by NASA’s HALO contractor Northrop Grumman. These forgings are the base metal that is used to create the pressure shell, barrel sections, and interface rings for HALO. The manufacturing process is based on the same process employed by TASI in support of Northrop Grumman’s Cygnus spacecraft, which is currently being used to deliver cargo to the International Space Station. HALO will be the initial pressurized living quarters where astronauts spend their time during expeditions aboard the orbiting Gateway. About the size of a small studio apartment, it can support a crew of four for up to 30 days when NASA’s Orion spacecraft is docked to the Gateway.

Learn more about Gateway.