NASA’s oft-delayed Artemis I mission came to a spectacular and successful conclusion Sunday when the unoccupied Orion crew capsule splashed down in the Pacific Ocean after surviving a 25,000 mph and 5,000-degree reentry into Earth’s atmosphere.
And if NASA’s current schedule holds up, the next time the capsule returns to its home planet it will be carrying four astronauts as the space agency plots a trip to the lunar surface and, eventually, a manned mission to Mars.
Originally scheduled to parachute into waters off the California coast, rough conditions at sea on Sunday forced NASA to move Orion’s landing site about 300 miles south, where a Navy vessel captured the spacecraft for return to U.S. Naval Base San Diego. The capsule will later be transported to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center where technicians will thoroughly inspect Orion, retrieving data recorded on board, removing onboard payloads and more.
“I’m overwhelmed,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said from Mission Control in Houston, per The Associated Press. “This is an extraordinary day ... It’s historic because we are now going back into space — deep space — with a new generation.”
While unmanned, the Orion crew capsule included three test dummies outfitted in space suits and monitoring gear as it completed a 25-day journey that took the craft on a wide orbit around the moon, traveling further from Earth than any spacecraft designed to carry astronauts. All told, Orion traveled some 1.4 million miles on a mission powered by the world’s most powerful rocket, the Space Launch System, that lifted off from Kennedy Space Center in the early morning hours of Nov. 16.
Artemis I: A mission delayed but not denied
Efforts to get the Artemis I mission off the ground were beset by problems both humanmade and environmental thanks to some persistent, pesky fueling issues and severe weather.
The SLS rocket/Orion space capsule stack was moved off its launch pad at Cape Canaveral’s Kennedy Space Center in late September as Hurricane Ian was roaring toward central Florida.
The 322-foot rocket found shelter in the nearby Vehicle Assembly Building from the weather and also allowed NASA to perform some needed maintenance on the rocket and spacecraft after two failed earlier launch attempts led to a long stay at launchpad 39B.
As late-season Hurricane Nicole approached Florida in early November, NASA leaders decided the storm, much less ferocious than Ian, would not pose a significant threat to the SLS rocket package which rode out the weather on its pad.
NASA reported the rocket and capsule suffered some minor weather-related damage due to Hurricane Nicole’s high winds, but mission leaders deemed the issues were minor and moved forward with a countdown that began two days before the successful launch.
What happened with the first two Artemis I launch attempts?
The first launch attempt on Aug. 29 was shut down after a process to pre-cool the rocket engines in preparation for ignition failed to get one of the four engines to the required temperature of around minus 420 degrees Fahrenheit. In pre-launch preparations that day, NASA engineers also encountered a hydrogen leak that they eventually solved.
A second try on Sept. 3 also went awry, and was ultimately scrubbed, due to a leak in the liquid hydrogen fueling process that could not be solved in time to make the two-hour launch window that day.
NASA had conducted a successful test of the SLS fueling process following repairs to several key fueling mechanisms and appeared ready for a third try in late September, before Hurricane Ian forced a rollback of SLS to indoor protection.
What is the Artemis mission?
The crewless Artemis I mission allowed NASA experts to test the new SLS components, many of which had been repurposed from the old space shuttle program and other systems, as well as the Orion space capsule.
Artemis II, currently anticipated for sometime in 2024, will head to space with a four-person crew in the Orion capsule that will fly the craft around the moon in further testing. Then, if all goes according to NASA’s current plan, the SLS/Orion package will return on a mission that will include a landing on the moon’s surface in 2025.
Why does NASA want to return to the moon?
In a posting on the Artemis missions’ website, NASA lists a few reasons why it’s devoting billions of dollars to making moon landings, once again, a priority.
“We’re going back to the moon for scientific discovery, economic benefits and inspiration for a new generation of explorers: the Artemis Generation,” NASA says. “While maintaining American leadership in exploration, we will build a global alliance and explore deep space for the benefit of all.”
While a return to the moon smacks a little of “been there, done that,” NASA says it’s committed to accomplishing some other first benchmarks as part of the series of Artemis missions, including extending manned exploration deeper into the solar system.
“With Artemis missions, NASA will land the first woman and first person of color on the moon, using innovative technologies to explore more of the lunar surface than ever before,” NASA says in a web posting. “We will collaborate with commercial and international partners and establish the first long-term presence on the moon. Then, we will use what we learn on and around the moon to take the next giant leap: sending the first astronauts to Mars.”
SLS rocket fun facts
NASA says its SLS launch system stands at 322 feet high — taller than the Statue of Liberty — and weighs 5.75 million pounds when loaded with fuel.
During launch and ascent, the SLS produces 8.8 million pounds of maximum thrust, 15% more thrust than the Saturn V rockets that propelled Apollo astronauts to the moon.
Utah-based aerospace companies and experts have long played a role in NASA space missions, and the Artemis program is no exception. The massive solid fuel booster rockets that provide some 75% of the SLS initial thrust were developed and tested in Utah by Northrop Grumman in partnership with NASA.