NASA’s Artemis program prepares for liftoff

A view of the Artemis I vehicle stack looking up through High Bay 3, during the umbilical retract test. Credit: NASA/Frank Michaux

SEP. 23, 2021–NASA’s Artemis program, the crewed exploration program with the stated goal of returning humanity to the Moon for the first time since Apollo 17, is just a few months away from its first major launch, Artemis I. As the program approaches its first flights, sweeping changes across NASA’s organizational structure are underway, as well as new rounds of contracting to prepare the agency for routine and operational crewed lunar missions through the 2030s. 

The most major of these changes came in the form of the dissolution of the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate (HEOMD), which oversaw human spaceflight in NASA from 2011 to 2021. HEOMD was created after the Shuttle and Constellation programs ended as a merger of the Exploration Systems Development Mission Directorate (ESDMD) and the Space Operations Mission Directorate (SOMD). Due to what would become a nine-year gap in U.S. human spaceflight capability, merging the two directorates was necessary. Now that Artemis is preparing to launch, this merger is no longer needed and is being reversed.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson announced on Sept. 21, 2021, that HEOMD would be split back into its former directorates. “This reorganization positions NASA and the United States for success as we venture farther out into the cosmos than ever before, all while supporting the continued commercialization of space and research on the International Space Station. This also will allow the United States to maintain its leadership in space for decades to come,”  Nelson said.

The Exploration Systems Development directorate will oversee the Artemis program and future Mars crewed exploration. Jim Free, a long-time NASA leader, will return to the agency as associate administrator of the directorate. 

Kathy Lueders, who was associate administrator of HEOMD, will now lead the Space Operations directorate which will focus on commercializing low-Earth orbit, ISS operations, launch and space operations, and eventually sustained operations around the Moon. “We’ll work closely across mission directorates to achieve even greater successes to come, including expanding the low-Earth orbit economy, launching our state-of-the-art science missions, and getting ready for future operations at the Moon and Mars,”  Lueders said.

The two directorates will work together with each other, but also the remaining three (the Science, Space Technology, and Aeronautics Research directorates) in order to achieve NASA’s overarching goals. Reinstating the Space Operations and Explorations Systems Development directorates ensures that both operational and exploration activities have more focused oversight and leadership. “Kathy has demonstrated exceptional leadership and overseen tremendous progress in her role as the associate administrator for human spaceflight. And we’re thrilled to welcome Jim back to the agency. Together, this dynamic duo will help forge the future of human exploration,” said administrator Nelson.

An Orion Main Engine. This engine was previously used on Space Shuttles Challenger, Discovery, and Atlantis as an orbital maneuvering system engine. Credit: NASA

To complement the administrative changes, the Artemis program itself is quickly accelerating. NASA awarded an indefinite-delivery/indefinite-quantity contract worth up to $600 million to Aerojet Rocketdyne for up to 20 Orion spacecraft main engines on Tuesday, Sept. 21, 2021. These engines will enter service by Artemis VII after the current supply of former Space Shuttle OMS engines is exhausted, and are planned to remain in service through at least Artemis XIV. This complements the Orion Production and Operations Contract which was awarded to Lockheed Martin 2 years ago, which commits NASA to order a minimum of six up to a maximum of twelve capsules.

Artemis will also see its first lunar flight within the next month. CAPSTONE, a 12U CubeSat, will be launched aboard a Rocket Lab Electron rocket from New Zealand sometime in October. The satellite is a precursor for the Gateway lunar space station which will be situated in a lunar near-rectilinear halo orbit, a unique kind of lunar orbit with a constant, unobstructed view of Earth. CAPSTONE’s mission is to enter this orbit first for at least six months in order to understand its characteristics, as well as test new ways to navigate in cis-lunar space. CAPSTONE teams recently completed a series of mission simulations testing trajectory correction maneuvers and other important mission operations. 

A rendering of NASA’s VIPER rover on the Moon. Credit: NASA

Another important uncrewed Artemis mission, VIPER, will fill a similar role to CAPSTONE on the Lunar surface. VIPER’s landing site, announced earlier this week, will be on the west edge of Nobile Crater near the South Pole of the Moon. VIPER, NASA’s first uncrewed lunar rover, will launch in 2023 onboard a SpaceX Falcon Heavy and land on an Astrobotic Griffin lander under the Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) initiative.

“The data VIPER returns will provide lunar scientists around the world with further insight into our Moon’s cosmic origin, evolution, and history,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of the Science Mission Directorate. “It will also help inform future Artemis missions to the Moon and beyond by enabling us to better understand the lunar environment in these previously unexplored areas hundreds of thousands of miles away.”

Combined views of the Umbilical Release and Retract test. Credit: NASA, edited by Space Scout

While NASA gears up for a decade and a half’s worth of Artemis missions, Artemis I is continuing to check off milestones in its pre-launch testing phase. The Umbilical Release and Retract Test (URRT) was recently completed which tested all of the umbilicals for SLS as if it were launch day. The test, conducted by NASA’s Exploration Ground Systems and contractor Jacobs, took place inside of the Vehicle Assembly Building’s High Bay 3. “It was a great team effort to build, and now test, these critical systems,” said Peter Chitko, arms and umbilicals integration manager. “This test marked an important milestone because each umbilical must release from its connection point at T-0 to ensure the rocket and spacecraft can lift off safely.”

An engineer conducts preliminary modal tests from the control center, located in the second floor of the Mobile Launcher’s base. Credit: NASA

Following the URRT, Exploration Ground Systems teams will continue to test the Artemis I vehicle in the Integrated Modal Test (IMT) which will evaluate the entire vehicle-launcher stack’s structural resonances and frequency responses. “The Integrated Modal Test is one of the more exciting ones,” said Dr. John Blevins, chief engineer for the SLS program, in an interview with NASASpaceFlight. “We’re going to do that with the integrated vehicle; that modal test has got six shakers to do that.” The Artemis I core stage and SLS mobile launcher also previously underwent their own independent modal testing.

An example of one of the shakers used for the Integrated Modal Test. Credit: NASA

Once the IMT is done, preparations will begin for final stacking of the Artemis I flight vehicle. During these preparations, several concurrent tasks are to take place. Inside High Bay 3, the Launch Vehicle Stage Adapter (LVSA) flange will have more of SLS’s iconic orange foam added, umbilicals will be re-mated, and the Orion mass simulators/test articles will be removed. In the Launch Abort System Facility, Orion will undergo functional testing on the hatch and perform leak tests while the thermal protection system on its launch abort system cures. Finally, in the Multi-Payload Processing Facility, the last CubeSats not yet integrated into the Orion Stage Adapter flight article will be installed. 

Artemis I’s flight Orion Stage Adapter, containing some CubeSats already integrated. Credit: NASA

After these preparations, the flight Orion Spacecraft Adapter and Orion will be mated to the Artemis I vehicle, completing stacking. Some integrated vehicle testing will take place afterward, ahead of final closeouts for the wet dress rehearsal. The rehearsal, tentatively expected sometime in late November or early December of 2021 according to an industry source, will see the Artemis I vehicle roll out to launchpad 39B in a simulated countdown, running until the final seconds before main engine start. The vehicle will be fueled and activated as if it were launch day. 

Following the wet dress rehearsal, the Artemis I stack will roll back into High Bay 3 one last time for final closeouts. A week and a half after this, the vehicle will return to launchpad 39B, prepared and ready for liftoff as soon as late December 2021 or early January 2022.

Artemis I is an uncrewed test flight for NASA’s Artemis program. It is the first end-to-end integrated flight involving both SLS and Orion. Scheduled to launch sometime in late 2021 or early 2022, the mission will be the first flight of NASA’s Space Launch System rocket. Artemis’s stated goals are to land the first woman and first person of color on the surface of the Moon, to pave the way for sustainable, long-term lunar exploration, and to act as a stepping stone on the way to Mars.

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