Artemis 1 is Launching in February

It’s been a long time coming, but NASA’s next moon rocket is just months from liftoff on its first uncrewed test flight. The Space Launch System (SLS) is a super heavy-lift vehicle capable of delivering 95 tons to Low Earth Orbit, but its primary purpose will be to deliver humans to lunar orbit and, eventually, to the lunar surface. SLS has been in development since 2011, and it’s faced a series of delays, but launch day is finally within sight. Earlier this month, the rocket was fully stacked for the first time in the Vehicle Assembly Building at the Kennedy Space Center, and the Orion capsule (the spacecraft’s crew cabin) was attached to the top. The full stack stands an impressive 322 feet tall, just shy of the Saturn V’s 363 feet.

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Artemis 1 Comes Together as the Orion Capsule is Stacked on Top of the Space Launch System

Since 2004, NASA has been working on the launch system that will send astronauts to the Moon for the first time since the Apollo Era. These efforts bore fruit in 2011 with the proposed Space Launch System (SLS), the heaviest and most powerful rocket since the Saturn V. Paired with the Orion spacecraft, this vehicle will be the workhorse of a new space architecture that would establish a program of sustained lunar exploration and even crewed missions to Mars.

Due to repeated delays, cost overruns, and the expedited timeframe for Project Artemis, there have been serious doubts that the SLS will be ready in time. Luckily, ground crews and engineers at NASA’s Launch Control Center (LCC) – part of the Kennedy Space Center in Florida – recently finished stacking the Artemis I mission. The vehicle is now in the final phase of preparations for this uncrewed circumlunar flight in February 2022.

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Lockheed Wins the Contract to Build Six More Orion Capsules

When NASA sends astronauts back to the Moon and to Mars, the Orion Multipurpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV) will be what takes them there. To build these next-generation spacecraft, NASA contracted aerospace manufacturer Lockheed Martin. Combined with the massive Space Launch System (SLS), the Orion spacecraft will allow for long-duration missions beyond Low Earth Orbit (LEO) for the first time in over 50 years.

On Monday, Sept. 23rd, NASA and Lockheed Martin announced that they had finalized a contract for the production and operations of six missions using the Orion spacecraft, with the possibility of up to twelve being manufactured in total. This fulfills the requirements for NASA’s Project Artemis and opens the possibility for further missions to destinations like Mars and other locations in deep-space.

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VP Pence Unveils the Spacecraft that will Take Astronauts Back to the Moon in 2024!

In accordance with Space Policy Directive-1 – which was issued on December 11th, 2017 – NASA is busy developing all the necessary hardware to return astronauts to the Moon. On March 26th, 2019, NASA was officially directed to expedite the process and land the first astronauts of the post-Apollo era around the lunar South Pole by 2024. This mission is named Project Artemis, who is the twin sister of Apollo in Greek mythology.

Over the weekend, Vice President Mike Pence visited the Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout Building at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon Landing. The occasion also saw the unveiling of the Orion crew capsule that will be used for the first Artemis lunar mission. The event, therefore, served as both a retrospective and a look at the future of lunar exploration.

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Is NASA Sacrificing Sending Astronauts to Mars in Order to Get to the Moon Sooner?

On December 11th, 2017, President Trump issued Space Policy Directive-1, a change in national space policy which tasked NASA with the creation of an innovative and sustainable program of exploration that would send astronauts back to the Moon. This was followed on March 26th, 2019, with President Trump directing NASA to land the first astronauts since the Apollo era on the lunar South Pole by 2024.

Named Project Artemis, after twin sister of Apollo and goddess of the Moon in Greek mythology, this project has expedited efforts to get NASA back to the Moon. However, with so much focus dedicated to getting back to the Moon, there are concerns that other projects being neglected – like the development of the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway, a central part of creating a sustained human presence on the Moon and going on to Mars.

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Orion Capsule Passes Key Launch Abort Test. Next Stop: The Moon!

When it comes to the future of space exploration, a number of systems will come into play. In addition to the Space Launch System (SLS) that will send astronauts beyond Low Earth Orbit (LEO), there is also the Orion capsule. This is the vehicle that will take astronauts to the Moon again as part of Project Artemis (which is currently slated for 2024) and facilitate missions to Mars by the 2030s.

In preparation, the Orion capsule is being put through its paces to show that it’s up to the challenge. This past Tuesday, July 2nd, NASA successfully conducted the Ascent Abort-2 (AA-2) test, bringing the Orion one step closer to completion. The launch took place during the early morning hours and involved the capsule being launched from NASA’s Space Launch Complex 46 at Cape Canaveral aboard a modified Peacekeeper missile.

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NASA Report Outlines How it Will Go Back to the Moon, to Mars, and Beyond in a Sustainable Way

In the coming decades, NASA intends to mount some bold missions to space. In addition to some key operations to Low Earth Orbit (LEO), NASA intends to conduct the first crewed missions beyond Earth in over 40 years. These include sending astronauts back to the Moon and eventually mounting a crewed mission to Mars.

To this end, NASA recently submitted a plan to Congress that calls for human and robotic exploration missions to expand the frontiers of humanity’s knowledge of Earth, the Moon, Mars, and the Solar System. Known as the National Space Exploration Campaign, this roadmap outlines a sustainable plan for the future of space exploration.

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Construction on the Orion Capsule is Done. Next it’ll be Sent to Florida for Final Assembly

In recent years, NASA has been busy developing the technology and components that will allow astronauts to return to the Moon and conduct the first crewed mission to Mars. These include the Space Launch System (SLS), which will be the most powerful rocket since the Saturn V (which brought the Apollo astronauts to the Moon), and the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV).

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Ready to Leave Low Earth Orbit? Prototype Construction Begins for a Deep Space Habitat

Artist illustration of Habitation Module. Credit: Lockheed Martin

In 2010, NASA announced its commitment to mount a crewed mission to Mars by the third decade of the 21st century. Towards this end, they have working hard to create the necessary technologies – such as the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and the Orion spacecraft. At the same time, they have partnered with the private sector to develop the necessary components and expertise needed to get crews beyond Earth and the Moon.

To this end, NASA recently awarded a Phase II contract to Lockheed Martin to create a new space habitat that will build on the lessons learned from the International Space Station (ISS). Known as the Deep Space Gateway, this habitat will serve as a spaceport in lunar orbit that will facilitate exploration near the Moon and assist in longer-duration missions that take us far from Earth.

The contract was awarded as part of the Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnership (NextSTEP) program, which NASA launched in 2014. In April of 2016, as part of the second NextSTEP Broad Agency Announcement (NextSTEP-2) NASA selected six U.S. companies to begin building full-sized ground prototypes and concepts for this deep space habitat.

Artist’s impression of the Deep Space Gateway, currently under development by Lockheed Martin. Credit: NASA

Alongside such well-known companies like Bigelow Aerospace, Orbital ATK and Sierra Nevada, Lockheed Martin was charged with investigating habitat designs that would enhance missions in space near the Moon, and also serve as a proving ground for missions to Mars. Intrinsic to this is the creation of something that can take effectively integrate with SLS and the Orion capsule.

In accordance with NASA’s specifications on what constitutes an effective habitat, the design of the Deep Space Gateway must include a pressurized crew module, docking capability, environmental control and life support systems (ECLSS), logistics management, radiation mitigation and monitoring, fire safety technologies, and crew health capabilities.

The design specifications for the Deep Space Gateway also include a power bus, a small habitat to extend crew time, and logistics modules that would be intended for scientific research. The propulsion system on the gateway would rely on high-power electric propulsion to maintain its orbit, and to transfer the station to different orbits in the vicinity of the Moon when required.

With a Phase II contract now in hand, Lockheed Martin will be refining the design concept they developed for Phase I. This will include building a full-scale prototype at the Space Station Processing Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, Florida, as well as the creation of a next-generation Deep Space Avionics Integration Lab near the Johnson Space Center in Houston.

Artist’s concept of space habitat operating beyond Earth and the Moon. Credit: NASA

As Bill Pratt, Lockheed Martin’s NextSTEP program manager, said in a recent press statement:

“It is easy to take things for granted when you are living at home, but the recently selected astronauts will face unique challenges. Something as simple as calling your family is completely different when you are outside of low Earth orbit. While building this habitat, we have to operate in a different mindset that’s more akin to long trips to Mars to ensure we keep them safe, healthy and productive.”

The full-scale prototype will essentially be a refurbished Donatello Multi-Purpose Logistics Module (MPLM), which was one of three large modules that was flown in the Space Shuttle payload bay and used to transfer cargo to the ISS. The team will also be relying on “mixed-reality prototyping”, a process where virtual and augmented reality are used to solve engineering issues in the early design phase.

“We are excited to work with NASA to repurpose a historic piece of flight hardware, originally designed for low Earth orbit exploration, to play a role in humanity’s push into deep space,” said Pratt. “Making use of existing capabilities will be a guiding philosophy for Lockheed Martin to minimize development time and meet NASA’s affordability goals.”

The Deep Space Gateway will also rely on the Orion crew capsule’s advanced capabilities while crews are docked with the habitat. Basically, this will consist of the crew using the Orion as their command deck until a more permanent command module can be built and incorporated into the habitat. This process will allow for an incremental build-up of the habitat and the deep space exploration capabilities of its crews.

Credit: NASA

As Pratt indicated, when uncrewed, the habitat will rely on systems that Lockheed Martin has incorporated into their Juno and MAVEN spacecraft in the past:

“Because the Deep Space Gateway would be uninhabited for several months at a time, it has to be rugged, reliable and have the robotic capabilities to operate autonomously. Essentially it is a robotic spacecraft that is well-suited for humans when Orion is present. Lockheed Martin’s experience building autonomous planetary spacecraft plays a large role in making that possible.”

The Phase II work will take place over the next 18 months and the results (provided by NASA) are expected to improve our understanding of what is needed to make long-term living in deep space possible. As noted, Lockheed Martin will also be using this time to build their Deep Space Avionics Integration Laboratory, which will serve as an astronaut training module and assist with command and control between the Gateway and the Orion capsule.

Beyond the development of the Deep Space Gateway, NASA is also committed to the creation of a Deep Space Transport – both of which are crucial for NASA’s proposed “Journey to Mars”. Whereas the Gateway is part of the first phase of this plan – the “Earth Reliant” phase, which involves exploration near the Moon using current technologies – the second phase will be focused on developing long-duration capabilities beyond the Moon.

NASA’s Journey to Mars. NASA is developing the capabilities needed to send humans to an asteroid by 2025 and Mars in the 2030s. Credit: NASA/JPL

For this purpose, NASA is seeking to create a reusable vehicle specifically designed for crewed missions to Mars and deeper into the Solar System. The Deep Space Transport would rely on a combination of Solar Electric Propulsion (SEP) and chemical propulsion to transport crews to and from the Gateway – which would also serve as a servicing and refueling station for the spacecraft.

This second phase (the “Proving Ground” phase) is expected to culminate at the end of the 2020s, at which time a one-year crewed mission will take place. This mission will consist of a crew being flown to the Deep Space Gateway and back to Earth for the purpose of validating the readiness of the system and its ability to conduct long-duration missions independent of Earth.

This will open the door to Phase Three of the proposed Journey, the so-called “Earth Indepedent” phase. At this juncture, the habitation module and all other necessary mission components (like a Mars Cargo Vehicle) will be transferred to an orbit around Mars. This is expected to take place by the early 2030s, and will be followed (if all goes well) by missions to the Martian surface.

While the proposed crewed mission to Mars is still a ways off, the architecture is gradually taking shape. Between the development of spacecraft that will get the mission components and crew to cislunar space – the SLS and Orion – and the development of space habitats that will house them, we are getting closer to the day when astronauts finally set foot on the Red Planet!

Further Reading: NASA, Lockheed Martin

Approval For NASA Authorization Bill

On Sept. 15th, the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation met to consider legislation formally introduced by a bipartisan group of senators. Among the bills presented was the NASA Transition Authorization Act of 2016, a measure designed to ensure short-term stability for the agency in the coming year.

And as of Thursday, Sept. 22nd, the Senate Commerce Committee approved the bill, providing $19.5 billion in funding for NASA for fiscal year 2017. This funding was intended for the purpose of advancing the agency’s plans for deep space exploration, the Journey to Mars, and operations aboard the International Space Station.

According to Senator Ted Cruz, the bill’s lead sponsor, the Act was introduced in order to ensure that NASA’s major programs would be stable during the upcoming presidential transition. As Cruz was quoted as saying by SpaceNews:

“The last NASA reauthorization act to pass Congress was in 2010. And we have seen in the past the importance of stability and predictability in NASA and space exploration: that whenever one has a change in administration, we have seen the chaos that can be caused by the cancellation of major programs.”

Graphic shows Block I configuration of NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS). Credits: NASA/MSFC
Graphic shows Block I configuration of NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS). Credits: NASA/MSFC

This last act was known as the “NASA Authorization Act of 2010“, which authorized appropriations for NASA between the years of 2011-2013. In addition to providing a total of $58 billion in funding for those three years, it also defined long-term goals for the space agency, which included expanding human space flight beyond low-Earth orbit and developing technical systems for the “Journey to Mars”.

Intrinsic to this was the creation of the Space Launch System (SLS) as a successor to the Space Shuttle Program, the development of the Orion Multipurpose Crew Vehicle, full utilization of the International Space Station, leveraging international partnerships, and encouraging public participation by investing in education.

These aims are outlined in Section 415 of the bill, titled “Stepping Stone Approach to Exploration“:

“In order to maximize the cost-effectiveness of the long-term exploration and utilization activities of the United States, the Administrator shall take all necessary steps, including engaging international, academic, and industry partners to ensure that activities in the Administration’s human exploration program balance how those activities might also help meet the requirements of future exploration and utilization activities leading to human habitation on the surface of Mars.”

NASA has unveiled a new exercise device that will be used by Orion crews to stay healthy on their mission to Mars. Credit: NASA
NASA has unveiled a new exercise device that will be used by Orion crews to stay healthy on their mission to Mars. Credit: NASA

While the passage of the bill is certainly good news for NASA’s bugeteers, it contains some provisions which could pose problems. For example, while the bill does provide for continued development of the SLS and Orion capsule, it advised that NASA find alternatives for its Asteroid Robotic Redirect Missions (ARRM), which is currently planned for the 2020s.

This mission, which NASA deemed essential for testing key systems and developing expertise for their eventual crewed mission to Mars, was cited for not falling within original budget constraints. Section 435 (“Asteroid Robotic Redirect Mission“), details these concerns, stating that an initial estimate put the cost of the mission at $1.25 billion, excluding launch and operations.

However, according to a Key Decision Point-B review conducted by NASA on July 15th, 2016, a new estimate put the cost at $1.4 billion (excluding launch and operations). As a result, the bill’s sponsors concluded that ARM is in competition with other programs, and that an independent cost assessment and some hard choices may be necessary.

In Section 435, subsection b (parts 1 and 2), its states that:

“[T]he technological and scientific goals of the Asteroid Robotic Redirect Mission may not be commensurate with the cost; and alternative missions may provide a more cost effective and scientifically beneficial means to demonstrate the technologies needed for a human mission to Mars that would otherwise be demonstrated by the Asteroid Robotic Redirect Mission.”

NASA's new budget could mean the end of their Asteroid Redirect Mission. Image: NASA (Artist's illustration)
Artist’s impression of NASA’s ARM, which could be threatened by the agency’s new budget. Credit: NASA

The bill was also subject to amendments, which included the approval of funding for the development of satellite servicing technology. Under this arrangement, NASA would have the necessary funds to create spacecraft capable of repairing and providing maintenance to orbiting satellites, thus ensuring long-term functionality.

Also, Cruz and Bill Nelson (D-Fla), the committee ranking member, also supported an amendment that would indemnify companies or third parties executing NASA contracts. In short, companies like SpaceX or Blue Origin would now be entitled to compensation (above a level they are required to insure against) in the event of damages or injuries incurred as a result of launch and reentry services being provided.

According to a Commerce Committee press release, Sen. Bill Nelson had this to say about the bill’s passage:

“I want to thank Chairman Thune and the members of the committee for their continued support of our nation’s space program. Last week marked the 55th anniversary of President Kennedy’s challenge to send a man to the Moon by the end of the decade.  The NASA bill we passed today keeps us moving toward a new and even more ambitious goal – sending humans to Mars.”

With the approval of the Commerce Committee, the bill will now be sent to the Senate for approval. It is hoped that the bill will pass through the Senate quickly so it can be passed by the House before the year is over. Its supporters see this as crucial to maintaining NASA’s funding in the coming years, during which time they will be taking several crucial steps towards the proposed crewed mission to Mars.

Further Reading: SpaceNews, congress.gov