NASA’s recent media briefing announced potential dates for the Artemis I launch as August 29, September 2, and September 5. These dates are contingent on both the completion of Space Launch System (SLS) wet dress rehearsal repair work and weather forecasts at the time of launch.
“The next several weeks there will be a flurry of activity as we finalize our mission planning and prepare the rocket and the spacecraft for these launch attempts,”shared Mike Sarafin, the Artemis mission manager at NASA Headquarters.
Despite a hydrogen leak during fueling operations, the WDR was deemed successful. While repairing the source of said leak last week, technicians identified a loose collet. Technicians have entered the engine section to repair the fitting in parallel with launch preparations.
Cliff Lanham, senior vehicle operations manager, provided detailed information about what these preparations look like. The Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage (ICPS) will undergo ordinance operations this weekend. The Flight Termination System Operations will be the next step. Teams will remove the core stage and booster safe and arm devices for calibration in addition to removing and replacing the command receiver decoders with flight units. Final close-outs will occur in August prior to the anticipated roll out of the Artemis I stack on August 18. The finalized date for the Artemis I Flight Test will be announced one week prior to launch at the flight readiness review. Depending on the exact launch day, Orion will spend 39 or 42 days making the trip around the Moon and back. Splashdown could occur on October 10, October 11, or October 17, respectively. August 30 through September 1 remains unavailable for the historic flight test due to the Sun and Earth alignment as Orion heads for the Moon. This eclipse period would leave Orion without power while in the shadow of the Earth.
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The only presence in the Orion capsule during the uncrewed launch are three mannequins–or “Moon”-equins as they’ve been dubbed–named Commander Campos, Helga, and Zohar. Their job is to model human presence in the crew capsule, collecting data throughout the five-week flight.
“Our primary objectives essentially conclude that we complete the mission as planned in order to get to reentry where we will test the heat shield and recover the spacecraft,” outlined Sarafin.
No aerodynamic facility in the world can recreate the conditions Orion will experience during reentry. One of the primary objectives is testing the heat shield during reentry, where it will reach Mach 32 and temperatures half as hot as the sun. But before testing re-entry, every other mission phase must run smoothly.
The flight test allows for a full demonstration of mission operations (communications, navigation, propulsion). These mission operations include items such as the flight modes of the SLS and the various facilities and teams required to make the mission a success. These demonstrations aim to ensure that Orion will operate safely as a human rated spacecraft, and will be able to withstand the vast variations in temperatures throughout its journey as well as demonstrating its capabilities of safely passing and returning through the Van Allen belts.
Another item on this list will be testing the solar array designs and how they operate. Non-critical “bonus” mission objectives include items such as deploying 10 cubesats, certifying the optical navigation systems, various biological payloads as well as outreach. Operational team management will be put to the test during this mission across all facilities from prelaunch, to launch, to flight and eventually recovery.
Orion will complete its long journey to the Moon and back with splashdown, and this will be another phase of demonstration and testing for the teams at NASA as they will have to successfully execute recovery operations and procedures. Once Orion is returned to Kennedy Space Center, technicians and engineers will have a new trove of data. Technicians will inspect Orion thoroughly, retrieving data recorders for analysis and vital components for reuse on future flights. Engineers will receive data during the mission operations but the crew module itself will provide additional information.
NASA continues to aim for 2024 for the first crewed Artemis flight and a crewed lunar landing approximately one year later. The month-long trip provides a foundation for future crewed flights using the SLS as NASA continues to prepare for near-term and long-term exploration on the Moon and beyond.
Edited by Derek Newsome.