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Successful end to NASA’s moon mission turns attention to SpaceX

Successful end to NASA’s moon mission turns attention to SpaceX

An astronaut capsule without astronauts suspended under parachutes caused a light drizzle in the Pacific Ocean Sunday, bringing to a close NASA’s Artemis I moon mission.

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

The Artemis program is the successor to Apollo, and after years of delays and price hikes, the rocket and new spacecraft that will return astronauts to the moon have worked as smoothly as mission managers had hoped.

“This was a challenging mission,” Artemis mission manager Mike Sarafin said during a press conference after the plane landed. “And this is what mission success looks like.”

The moon trip capped a year of amazing success for NASA. Launched nearly a year ago, the James Webb Space Telescope began sending back stunning images of the universe this summer. The DART mission showed in September that colliding with an asteroid on purpose 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 turn toward SpaceX, the private rocket company founded by Elon Musk. NASA is banking on a version of the Starship, the company’s next-generation spacecraft that hasn’t yet flown into space, to land astronauts on the Moon.

On Sunday, just after noon ET, 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 mission’s final major goal: to prove that the capsule’s heat shield can withstand temperatures of up to 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

By design, the capsule bounced off the top layer of air before reentering. It was the first time that a capsule designed for astronauts had performed this maneuver, known as skip-entry, which allows more precise guidance toward the landing site. As expected, there were two communications outages as the heat from the capsule’s encounter with the atmosphere caused it to produce electrically charged gases that blocked radio signals.

Before and after the blackout, live video from outside the Orion window showed great views of Earth getting bigger and bigger.

At 12:40 p.m. ET, the capsule settled in the Pacific Ocean off Mexico’s Baja Peninsula. Recovery crews aboard the USS Portland experienced fast winds and choppy seas with waves four to five feet high.

Over the next few hours, rescue teams worked to pull Orion out of the water. It will then return to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida for a detailed examination.

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The capsule and the Space Launch System, a giant new rocket, are key pieces for Artemis, which aims to land astronauts on the moon near its south pole as early as 2025.

During Artemis I’s 26 days, glitches surfaced as expected, but the flight appeared to be free of major malfunctions that required lengthy investigation and redesign.

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

While the mission was years behind schedule and billions of dollars over budget, the flight provided some validation of the traditional, government-run approach NASA has taken to developing complex space hardware.

“In my view, it certainly lives up to expectations, if not more,” Jeff Bingham, a former senior Republican aide on the Senate subcommittee that drafted legislation in 2010 directing NASA to build the Space Launch System, said in an interview. “I feel good about the fact that what we wanted will pay off.”

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

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

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

The lunar landing is planned for the third Artemis mission, where the Space Launch System and Orion will transport four astronauts into a large, circular orbit around the moon. This mission will not require abilities beyond those demonstrated during Artemis I and Artemis II.

The manufacture of the necessary hardware for these tasks is already well under way. Half of the Orion capsule for Artemis II has already been built at Kennedy Space Center. Orion’s service module, built by Airbus as part of the European Space Agency’s contributions to moon missions, was delivered last year. This weekend, the bottom section of the rocket that will launch Artemis III He arrived at Kennedy for installation of engines.

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“This isn’t just one flight and we’re done,” said Jim Frye, associate administrator for NASA’s Exploration Systems Development Directorate.

But Artemis III will hinge on a third needed piece: a lander built by SpaceX. And for this part of the mission, Mr. Musk’s company will have to produce a series of technological marvels that have not been achieved before.

“I think all eyes start turning to the probe at some point,” said Garver, whose work during the Obama administration helped lay the groundwork for SpaceX’s current program to fly astronauts to the International Space Station.

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

A long-promised test launch of the Starship to orbit has yet to happen, though activity at the company’s development site in south Texas suggests SpaceX is getting closer.

For Artemis III, the probe will dock with the Orion spacecraft over the Moon.

Two astronauts will transfer to the lander and head to the moon’s south polar region, spending nearly a week on the surface.

But moving the probe into lunar orbit will not be easy at all.

For one, it would require at least three different ships. 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 spacecraft spacecraft—will be nearly empty, with not enough propulsion to head for the moon.

Thus, SpaceX will first launch a Starship that will essentially serve as a gas station in orbit. Next, you will perform a series of launches – No more than eight, Mr. Musk said It will be needed – from a tanker version of the Starship to transport fuel to the Starship gas station.

The final launch will be the lunar lander, which will blast off to the Starship gas station in orbit and fill its tanks. The lunar probe will finally be ready to head to the Moon.

While a NASA Space Launch System rocket only flies once and all the pieces fall into the ocean as trash, SpaceX spacecraft are designed to be completely reusable. Musk says that would make launches more frequent and cheap.

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Before Artemis III, SpaceX has to run an uncrewed test first to show that it can actually perform a rapid succession of launching the spacecraft, reliably transmitting the thrusters into orbit and landing safely on the Moon.

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

“Knowing what I think I know about the state of our microfuel transportation research, we still have a long way to go,” said Dumbacher.

Rocket launches are still very risky, so the number of spacecraft launches needed for Artemis III increases the likelihood that one will fail, dooming the entire endeavor.

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

The flip side is that if SpaceX finds the technical challenges more daunting than anticipated, NASA will have no immediate alternative to turn to. The agency has just received proposals from other companies for a second probe design, but the second probe design is for the subsequent moon mission. (In November, NASA awarded SpaceX an additional $1.15 billion to provide the lander for Artemis IV.)

Mr. Musk also added to his portfolio of companies with the purchase of Twitter, as the turmoil that followed his takeover of the social media company now consumes much of his time and attention.

“This is new,” said Mrs. Garver. Elon’s “concerns escalated,” though she said she wasn’t sure how directly it would affect work at SpaceX.

the information And the CNBC reported last month That SpaceX has shaken up leadership of the Texas Starship operation with Gwen Shotwell, the president of SpaceX, and Mark Junkosa, the company’s vice president of vehicle engineering, now overseeing the site.

last week, Mr. Musk said on Twitter He continues to oversee his electric car company, SpaceX and Tesla, “but the teams there are so good that I often need a little.”

Mr. Bingham said he hopes Starship will be successful, but “there’s a lot of uncertainty out there, and it’s troubling.”

During the press conference, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said he asked Mr. Frye the whole time if SpaceX was on schedule. And the answer came to me, ‘Yes, and in some cases, exceeding,’ said Mr. Nelson.