Successful completion of NASA’s lunar mission draws attention to SpaceX

Suspended under parachutes, a capsule without astronauts made a gentle dip into the Pacific on Sunday, ending NASA’s Artemis I lunar mission.

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

The Artemis program is the successor to Apollo, and after years of delays and an ever-increasing price tag, the new rocket and spacecraft that will bring astronauts back to the Moon performed as well as mission managers had hoped.

“A new day has dawned, and the Artemis generation is taking us there,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said on NASA TV after the dive.

The trip to the moon ended a spectacularly successful year for NASA. Its James Webb Space Telescope, launched nearly a year ago, began sending back stunning images of the cosmos this summer. Its DART mission showed in September that deliberately colliding with an asteroid could protect Earth in the future if a deadly space rock is discovered on a collision course with our planet.

With the completion of Artemis I, more attention will turn to SpaceX, the private rocket company founded by Elon Musk. NASA is counting on a version of the Starship, the company’s state-of-the-art spacecraft that has not yet flown into space, to land astronauts on the moon.

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

By design, the capsule bounced off the upper air layer before re-entering a second time. It was the first time that a capsule designed for astronauts performed the maneuver, known as a jump-in, which allows for more precise piloting to the landing site. As expected, there were two communications blackouts, as the heat from the encounter with the atmosphere created electrically charged gases around the capsule that blocked radio signals.

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

At 12:40 pm ET, the capsule landed in the Pacific Ocean off Mexico’s Baja Peninsula. Ship salvage teams aboard the USS Portland encountered high winds and rough seas with waves four to five feet high.

Over the next few hours, rescuers work to get Orion out of the water. It will be returned to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida for 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.

“If you asked me to rate it, I would give it an A+,” Catherine Koerner, NASA’s deputy associate administrator for Exploration Systems Development, told NASA TV as Orion approached Earth on Sunday morning. “We learned how the spacecraft works and we learned how to fly this amazing machine. 🇧🇷

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

“It’s a great demonstration that this material works,” said Daniel L. Dumbacher, executive director of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. Mr. Dumbacher oversaw early work on the Space Launch System more than a decade ago, when he was one of NASA’s top manned spaceflight managers.

Though the mission was years late and billions of dollars over budget, the flight provided some validation of the traditional government-run approach NASA took to developing complex space hardware.

“From my perspective, this certainly meets expectations, if not more,” said Jeff Bingham, a former Republican adviser to the Senate subcommittee that framed legislation in 2010 ordering NASA to build the space launch system. “I feel good about the fact that what we wanted to have achieved. 🇧🇷

Even Lori Garver, a former NASA assistant 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 well.

“It’s fantastic that it works,” she said. “It is 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 back to Earth.

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

The manufacture of equipment for these missions is already well advanced. The Orion capsule for Artemis II is already largely built at Kennedy Space Center. The Orion service module, built by Airbus as part of the European Space Agency’s contributions to lunar missions, was delivered last year. This weekend, the underside of the rocket that will launch Artemis III arrived at Kennedy for installation🇧🇷

But Artemis III will feature a third essential piece: a lander built by SpaceX. And for this part of the mission, Musk’s company will have to achieve a series of technological marvels never achieved before.

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

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

A long-promised Starship test launch into orbit has yet to happen, though a buzz of activity at the company’s South Texas development site indicates that SpaceX is getting closer.

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

Two astronauts will leave the probe and head to the south polar region of the moon, spending almost a week on the surface.

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

For one thing, at least three different ships will be needed. The Starship system is a two-stage rocket: a reusable booster known as a Super Heavy with the Starship spacecraft on top. After reaching orbit, the tanks on the second stage – the Starship spacecraft – will be almost empty, without enough propellant to go to the moon.

So SpaceX will first launch a Starship that will essentially serve as an orbiting gas station. It will then perform a series of launches – Mr. Musk said no more than eight will be needed – a tank version of the Starship to transport the propellant to the Starship gas station.

The final launch will be the Starship Lunar Lander, which will travel to the Starship gas station in orbit and refuel its tanks. The lunar module will finally be ready to go to the moon.

Whereas NASA’s Space Launch System rocket only flies once and all parts end up in the ocean as trash, SpaceX’s Starship was designed to be fully reusable. That will make launches frequent and cheap, says Musk.

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

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

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

Rocket launches also remain risky, so the multitude of starship launches required for Artemis III increases the chance that one of them will fail, sinking the entire effort.

By entrusting development of the lunar lander to SpaceX, NASA hopes Musk’s company’s innovative approach will provide a faster lander at a lower cost than a NASA-led program.

The flip side is that if SpaceX finds the technical challenges more difficult than expected, NASA will have no immediate alternative to turn to. The agency has just received proposals from other companies for a second landing project, but the second landing project is for a later lunar mission. (In November, NASA awarded SpaceX an additional $1.15 billion to supply the Artemis IV lander.)

Musk also expanded his business portfolio with the purchase of Twitter, where the turmoil following the social media company’s acquisition now occupies much of his time and attention.

“It’s new,” Garver said. “Elon’s concerns have increased,” although she said she wasn’t sure the extent of those directly affecting work at SpaceX.

CNBC reported last month that SpaceX has changed the direction 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 that he continues to oversee SpaceX and Tesla, his electric car company, “but the teams are so good that I am often not needed. »

Bingham said he expected Starship to be successful, but “there’s a lot of uncertainty and it’s concerning. 🇧🇷

If SpaceX really succeeds with Starship, NASA will have funded much of the development of a spacecraft capable of taking astronauts to Mars for the bargain price of a lunar module.

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