Successful end of NASA moon mission shifts focus to SpaceX

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Suspended under parachutes, an astronaut pod without astronauts made a gentle splash into the Pacific Ocean on Sunday, bringing NASA’s Artemis I lunar mission to an end.

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

The Artemis program is the successor to Apollo, and after years of delays and a rising price tag, the new rocket and spacecraft that will take astronauts back to the moon worked about as smoothly as mission managers had hoped.

“This was a challenging mission,” Mike Sarafin, Artemis’ mission manager, said at a press conference after landing. “And this is what mission success looks like.”

The lunar journey concluded a year of spectacular successes for NASA. The James Webb Space Telescope, which launched nearly a year ago, began returning breathtaking images of the cosmos this summer. The DART mission showed in September that deliberately hitting an asteroid could protect Earth in the future if a deadly space rock is discovered on a collision course with our planet.

With the conclusion of Artemis I, more attention will be drawn to SpaceX, the private rocket company founded by Elon Musk. NASA relies on a version of Starship, the company’s next-generation spacecraft that hasn’t yet flown to space, to land astronauts on the moon.

On Sunday, just after noon Eastern time, the Orion crew capsule — where astronauts will sit during future flights — re-entered Earth’s atmosphere at 24,500 miles per hour. This was the last major goal of the mission: to demonstrate that the capsule’s heat shield could withstand temperatures of up to 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

By design, the capsule bounced off the upper layer of air before returning a second time. It was the first time a capsule designed for astronauts performed this maneuver, known as a skip entry, which allows for more precise steering to the landing site. As expected, there were two communications blackouts because the heat from the capsule’s encounter with the atmosphere created electrically charged gases that jammed the radio signals.

Before and after the blackouts, live video from outside Orion’s window showed impressive images of the expanding Earth.

At 12:40 a.m. Eastern Time, the capsule settled in the Pacific Ocean off Mexico’s Baja Peninsula. Salvage crews aboard the USS Portland faced strong winds and choppy seas with waves four to five feet high.

For the next few hours, salvage crews worked to pull Orion out of the water. Then it goes back to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida for detailed inspection.

The capsule and the Space Launch System, a gigantic new rocket, are key components of Artemis, which aims to land astronauts on the moon near the South Pole as early as 2025.

During Artemis I’s 26 days, glitches occurred as expected, but the flight appeared to be devoid of major glitches that would require a lengthy investigation and redesign.

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

Although the mission was years behind schedule and billions of dollars over budget, the flight provided some confirmation of NASA’s traditional government-led approach to developing the complex space hardware.

“From my point of view, it certainly lives up to expectations, if not more,” Jeff Bingham, a former senior Republican aide on the Senate subcommittee who shaped the legislation in 2010 that directed NASA to build the Space Launch System, said in a statement. interview. “I have a good feeling that what we planned is coming true.”

Even Lori Garver, a former NASA deputy administrator who preferred to turn to private companies to come up with more innovative rocket designs that could have been built faster and cheaper, acknowledged that the Artemis I flight went smoothly.

“It’s fantastic that it works,” she said in an interview. “It’s a huge relief and excitement at NASA.”

The space agency now appears to be in good shape to launch its next mission, Artemis II, as planned in 2024. That flight will send four astronauts to the moon, without landing, and then back to Earth.

Vanessa Wyche, director of the Johnson Space Center, said NASA planned to name the crew members for Artemis II early next year.

The moon landing is planned for the third Artemis mission, in which the Space Launch System and Orion will take four astronauts to a large loop-shaped orbit around the moon. That task does not require abilities beyond those demonstrated during Artemis I and Artemis II.

The manufacturing of the hardware for those missions is already in full swing. The Orion capsule for Artemis II is already half built at Kennedy Space Center. The service module for Orion, built by Airbus as part of the European Space Agency’s contributions to the lunar missions, was delivered last year. This weekend the lower part for the rocket that will launch Artemis III arrived at Kennedy for installation of the engines.

“This isn’t just one flight and we’re done,” said Jim Free, associate administrator of NASA’s Directorate of Reconnaissance System Development.

But Artemis III hinges on a third required piece: a lander built by SpaceX. And for that part of the mission, Mr. Musk’s company will have to perform a series of technological marvels never before achieved.

“I think all eyes are going to be on the lander at some point,” said Ms. Garver, whose work during the Obama administration helped lay the groundwork for SpaceX’s current program to deliver astronauts to the International Space Station. bring.

NASA awarded SpaceX a $2.9 billion contract in 2021 to develop and build the lunar lander, a variation of the giant Starship rocket, for Artemis III.

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

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

Two astronauts will move onto the lander and head to the moon’s south polar region, where they will spend nearly a week on the surface.

But getting the lander into lunar orbit will be far from easy.

First, at least three different starships are needed. The Starship system is a two-stage rocket: a reusable booster known as the Super Heavy with the Starship spacecraft on top. After reaching orbit, the tanks of the second stage – the Starship spacecraft – will be almost empty, with not enough propellant to go to the moon.

For example, SpaceX will first launch a spaceship that will essentially serve as a gas station in orbit. Then it will do a series of launches – Mr. Musk has not said more than eight will be needed – of a tanker version of Starship to carry propellant to the Starship gas station.

The final launch is the Starship lunar lander, which will drive into orbit to the Starship gas station and fill its tanks. The lunar lander will then finally be ready to go to the moon.

While NASA’s Space Launch System rocket only flies once and all the pieces fall into the ocean as trash, SpaceX’s Starship is designed to be completely reusable. That will make launches frequent and cheap, says Musk.

Prior to Artemis III, SpaceX must first conduct an unmanned test to demonstrate that it can indeed perform a rapid succession of Starship launches, reliably deliver propellants into orbit, and land safely on the Moon.

The idea of ​​refueling in space dates back decades, but remains largely untested.

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

Rocket launches also remain risky, so the multitude of Starship launches required for Artemis III increases the likelihood of one of them failing, sinking the entire enterprise.

By turning over lunar lander development to SpaceX, NASA hopes Mr. Musk’s company’s innovative approach will deliver a lander faster at a lower cost than a NASA-led program could.

The downside is that if SpaceX finds the technical challenges harder than expected, NASA won’t have an immediate alternative to turn to. The agency has just received proposals from other companies for a second lander design, but the second lander design is intended for a later lunar mission. (In November, NASA awarded SpaceX another $1.15 billion to provide the lander for Artemis IV.)

Mr. Musk also expanded his portfolio of companies with the purchase of Twitter, where the turmoil that followed his acquisition of the social media company now consumes much of his time and attention.

“That’s new,” said Mrs. Garver. “Elon’s concerns have escalated,” though she said she wasn’t sure how much they directly affect work at SpaceX.

CNBC reported last month that SpaceX has shaken up the leadership of its Texas Starship operation with Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX’s president, and Mark Juncosa, the company’s vice president of vehicle engineering, now overseeing the site.

Last week, Musk said on Twitter that he still oversees both SpaceX and Tesla, his electric car company, “but the teams there are so good that often little is needed from me.”

Mr. Bingham said he hoped Starship would succeed, but “There’s a lot of uncertainty in there, and it’s worrisome.”

During the press conference, Bill Nelson, the NASA administrator, said he asked Mr. Free all the time if SpaceX was on track. “And the answer comes back to me: ‘Yes, and in some cases even more,'” Mr Nelson said.

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