The crew of NASA’s Artemis II meets their lunar ship

Zoom in / Artemis II Commander Reed Wiseman, Pilot Victor Glover, and Mission Specialists Christina Koch and Jeremy Hansen pose with their Orion spacecraft at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Trevor Mahlman

Three Americans and one Canadian scheduled to fly on NASA’s Artemis II lunar mission had a “pinch-me-me” moment Monday when they got their first chance to visit the Orion spacecraft that will take them around the moon and back to Earth.

The astronauts had a chance to look through the porthole of the Artemis II mission’s Orion crew capsule, which is now largely completed and undergoing some final testing before it is attached to the Power and Thrust Module at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

“We all said when we headed up to it the first time, it gave us goosebumps, and it really does,” said Christina Koch, Artemis II mission specialist. “So it’s a new way that I feel connected to this crew and also to the team.”

This week’s crew visit to the Kennedy Space Center is far from the last as the astronauts prepare for their mission — the first trip by humans to the lunar vicinity since the last Apollo mission in 1972. On future trips to the Florida spaceport, Koch and her colleagues will climb inside the Orion crew module several times for testing and departure. Sometime next year, they’ll don their orange press-and-tie suits in their seats for a full end-to-end test of the spacecraft’s software, cockpit displays, and life support system.

“It was cool to look inside,” said Red Wiseman, commander of Artemis II. “The fit and finish is great. It’s great to see the actual hardware come together. The stuff we’ve learned about so far in training, to see it on the ground in the spacecraft, it’s given you a good sense of how along this thing is. The hardware is almost ready.”

Away, but there is more work to be done

Presently, the 16.5-foot-diameter (5-meter) Orion crew module—about 4 feet wider than the first-era Apollo command module of lunar exploration—resides at one end in the long hall of the cavernous Neil Armstrong Operations & Checkout Building at Kennedy. An array of powerful speakers surrounds the Orion capsule on three sides.

The gumdrop-shaped upper part of the spacecraft is covered with black silica tiles similar in appearance to the thermal protection tiles that flew on NASA’s space shuttle. At the bottom, attached is the spacecraft’s main heat shield, with a reflective silver coating applied to a traction material that will take the brunt of the heat of about 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit (2,800 degrees Celsius) generated at the end of the mission as the capsule hurtles back through Earth’s atmosphere at a speed equivalent to 32 times the speed of sound.

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Later this week, speakers will begin blasting the Orion crew module with sounds that simulate acoustic energy from a rocket launch. The live field acoustic test is designed to ensure the spacecraft can withstand the intense sound from the engines and boosters of NASA’s Space Launch System rocket, which will send the Artemis II crew into space.

It’s one of the last big tests before technicians lift the Orion crew module, built by Lockheed Martin, atop the Orion service module, which Airbus built through an agreement between NASA and the European Space Agency. Final touches on the Orion crew module took longer than expected, and delivery of the two Orion modules is now expected in mid-September, two to three months later than NASA forecast earlier this year.

Crew module element preparation for the Artemis II mission — where astronauts will live through the roughly 10-day loop trip around the far side of the moon — is now launch time, according to Jim Frye, who leads the NASA division responsible for hardware development for the Artemis lunar program.

Frye said preparations are being made “a number of weeks” behind the schedule that NASA needs to keep Artemis II’s target launch date of late November 2024. Not surprisingly, this means a delay in 2025 is likely.

“Crew unity is the critical path right now,” Frye said at a news conference Tuesday at Kennedy. “We have to assemble and test the crew module, then mate it with the service module, and hand it over to the ground systems people here for processing.”

Artemis II astronauts approach their Orion spacecraft.
Zoom in / Artemis II astronauts approach their Orion spacecraft.

NASA conducted a review in late July evaluating the results of last year’s uncrewed Artemis I lunar mission, the first flight of the massive SLS rocket and the first flight of the Orion spacecraft into lunar distance. While the space agency has heralded the Artemis I test as an unqualified success, there are some lessons from Artemis that are still being reviewed. Nothing rises to the level of what could be considered “major issues,” Frye said.

One involves a problem with the electrical system on the Orion service module, and the other relates to the release and retention screws on the Orion spacecraft. Free said the most important unsolved problem that came out of the Artemis I mission was a discovery from post-flight inspections of Orion’s heat shield. And ground teams detected “charred material” evaporating or burning off the heat shield in a different way than computer models had predicted.

A lot more charred material than expected came out of the heat shield during Artemis I’s return, and the way it came out was somewhat uneven. There were more differences than expected in the appearance of the different parts of the heat shield. In the end, though, the heat shield protected the capsule and Orion scattered safely under parachutes in the Pacific Ocean.

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Debbie Kurth, deputy director of NASA’s Orion Program, told Ars that engineers continue to investigate the performance of the heat shield, aided by bow jet and wind tunnel tests. She said that no hardware changes are likely to be made to the heat shield already installed on the Orion spacecraft for Artemis II. NASA could make changes to the heat shields for downstream Artemis missions.

“We’re in the process of doing some modeling updates and some ground testing to try to replicate the type of case that we saw on Artemis I,” Kurth said. “The heat shield that we have on Artemis II is of the same design, so a lot of what we’re doing now is looking at the tracks, what kind of track are we going to fly to try to reduce that coal loss.”

NASA officials went out of their way on Tuesday to commit to the safety of the Artemis II crew. “Obviously we’re going to make the right decision to keep them safe,” Frey said when asked about the heat shield investigation. “If that decision was that we had to do something drastic, we would do that, but we are now on a path… to get to the root cause, and then we will make the final decision from there.”

Wiseman, the commander of Artemis II, said he is heavily involved in discussions about Orion’s heat shield.

“I know we’re going to find the right solution, and sure enough, this crew, we’re not going to launch until we know we’re ready and until our team knows the car is ready,” Wiseman said. Keep pushing, but so far, I think all the right things are being done.”

Super-close-up view of the Orion spacecraft's heat shield tiles.
Zoom in / Super-close-up view of the Orion spacecraft’s heat shield tiles.

Trevor Mahlman

A short distance from the crew module’s acoustic test cell, the Orion service module is pretty much completed for Artemis II. Once the modules are mated, engineers will put the entire Orion spacecraft through a series of integrated stress tests, which will exercise the spacecraft’s environmental control and life support system. The full suite of life support equipment has never been flown in space before.

“I think the biggest new thing will be how these new systems respond to the series of tests that are in front of us,” Korth said.

The Orion spacecraft is scheduled to be delivered from the production team to the operations team at Kennedy this April. Orion will then travel to a nearby fueling facility at Kennedy to be loaded with propellant, before rolling to the Vehicle Assembly Building for stacking on the SLS rocket.

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The core stage of Boeing’s SLS Moon rocket is on track to arrive at Kennedy from its New Orleans plant in November. That will begin stacking the missile inside the assembly building in February.

This delay in Artemis II may not amount to much

The lack of a multi-month schedule for Artemis 2, if that’s all there is to it, isn’t much of a problem in the delay-filled history of NASA’s deep space exploration programs. The next Artemis mission after Artemis II is currently scheduled to attempt the program’s first moon landing, again using the SLS Moon rocket and Orion spacecraft, which will attach to a commercial lander derived from SpaceX’s Starship massive rocket.

Landing on the lunar south pole of Artemis III hinges on the readiness of the Starship lander and new spacesuits developed by Axiom Space. It is unlikely that these projects will be ready to support NASA’s Artemis III program’s target launch schedule of the end of 2025. It is also likely a fair question whether the Orion spacecraft and SLS rocket for Artemis III will be ready at that time.

If the Artemis III landing mission moves to 2026 or later, it wouldn’t make much difference whether Artemis II flies in late 2024 or 2025. Not much of a rush. In fact, Free acknowledged on Tuesday that NASA is considering alternate mission profiles for Artemis III in case the Starship and Axiom spacesuits are too late.

SpaceX first needs to get the Starship rocket into orbit. Another Starship test launch could take place in the next couple of months. Then more test flights would be required, including a demonstration of in-orbit spacecraft refueling, a capability without which spacecraft could not reach the moon. Finally, SpaceX plans to do a Starship test mission to land on the moon without astronauts before committing to crewed landings.

Free said NASA officials recently met with the SpaceX team at the Starship development site in south Texas. SpaceX provided NASA with an updated timeline of milestones for the Artemis III landing, but Free declined to discuss the specifics of the timeline.

“I think we’ll look at that and update it in the near future, after we’ve had some time to digest it,” Frye said. “But we are holding all contractors until December 25th (for Artemis III).

“We may end up on a different mission,” Frye said. “If we have these big slips, we’ve considered could we do other missions, if there’s a possibility there. Right now, we’re still looking at their schedule. The spacesuits have a CDR (Critical Design Review) in October, so obviously This is another piece of hardware that is on the critical path for this mission.”

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