Fresh off the success of the Artemis 1 mission that concluded last month, NASA says it has a busy year ahead getting ready for the next Artemis launch planned for late 2024.
Artemis 2 will fly past the Moon deeper into space and will use a different, updated Orion crew module, one of four that will be built for the program over the next few years. For NASA, the challenge ahead is obvious; Artemis 1 didn’t have a crew on board. Artemis 2 will.
“It’s easier in a sense that you have the astronauts to feed back,” Orion Program Planning and Control Office Chief of Staff Stu McClung said. “It gets a little more difficult in the sense that now you have astronauts to bring home safely and so some of the discussions you’ll have and what your risk trades that you’ll do along the way are different because I clearly don’t want to ever lose a vehicle, but I definitely don’t want to lose the crew, so that modifies the decision-making process to some extent.”
Judging from the early returns of the Artemis 1 mission, NASA is off to a good start. The empty Orion crew module splashed down in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Baja on December 11 after a 25-day mission that covered 1.3 million miles, including a loop around the Moon.
“We really didn’t have any big technical challenges where we got a huge surprise, which was great,” McClung said. “We test the vehicle thoroughly on the ground. We didn’t have any massive gotchas, which was fantastic.”
NASA hopes to carry that success into 2023, a year that will include integrated testing of the new Artemis 2 Orion crew module and the service module, which propels the spacecraft in space and helps it get back through Earth’s atmosphere at the end of the mission. NASA is expected to announce the four-person crew for Artemis 2 early this year.
“The crew will start training, the flight control team will start our mission simulations, the engineers and the test team in Florida will continue to test and assemble Artemis 2, the actual flight vehicle and get it ready,” McClung said. “We’ll be cranking.”
Part of the challenge for NASA is sticking with a timeline and avoiding big delays. Returning to the Moon is a huge undertaking and comes with unique issues to work through for the space agency. Unlike the Space Shuttle program or the International Space Station, the Artemis program includes landing on the Moon and eventually on Mars. The last time a NASA astronaut was on the Moon was 1972.
“It’s important for us to execute our mission and hit our commitment,” McClung said. “We’re targeting late 2024. It’s important to the team that we do that and it’s important to all of our stakeholders, which is basically the public, that we execute what we say we’re going to execute.”
Johnson Space Center will continue to play a key role in the Artemis program, with flight operations and the astronaut training program based here. Another key part of the Artemis program that will be based in Houston is the Lunar Gateway, a space station that will eventually be parked in lunar orbit and will serve as a support station for activity on and around the Moon.
In the meantime, NASA engineers will spend the next few months reviewing data from the Artemis 1 mission, including more inspections of the Orion crew module. They’re looking for anything they may have missed in initial inspections as they get ready for the second step in the historic Artemis program.
Artemis 3 is planned for 2025 and will include the first woman and first woman of color on the surface of the Moon.
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