It’s been about three months since NASA’s Orion spacecraft landed in the Pacific Ocean after returning from crossing the moon. At the time, the space agency said the Artemis I mission had successfully achieved its goal, paving the way for humanity to follow suit.
After carefully reviewing data from the Artemis I mission since the water landing this week, space agency officials reiterated that the flight had some minor issues, but was more reliable overall. As a result, NASA’s chief of human deep space exploration, Jim Freeh, said NASA is targeting his 2024 “late November” for the Artemis II mission.
During this flight, four astronauts, presumably including a Canadian, will spend just over a week in deep space. After confirming Orion’s performance in low-Earth orbit, the spacecraft will fly around the Moon in what is known as a “free-return trajectory,” until he reaches the surface of the Moon as close as 7,500 km before swinging back. .
To much fanfare, NASA will nominate a crew for the Artemis II mission later this spring. They will be the first humans to fly beyond low earth orbit in more than 50 years since the Apollo moon program ended in December 1972. Landed in the late 2020s.
Perhaps the most notable issue discussed at the press conference was Orion’s heat shield performance. This protects the spacecraft as it passes through the Earth’s atmosphere at high speed. This is one of the key tests during Artemis I. A vehicle returning from the Moon will fly at a speed of about 40,000 km/h, about 30% faster than a normal vehicle returning from low earth orbit.
Howard Hu, NASA’s Orion Program Manager, said: “Some of the charred material evaporated in a different way than predicted by our computer models and ground tests. Much of this charred material was released on reentry much more than expected. .”
Heat shields, such as those on Orion and most other spacecraft, are designed to burn out when heated in the atmosphere during flight. This ablative material on the bottom of the spacecraft protects the spacecraft itself and the crew inside from the extremely hot conditions outside.
Orion’s ablative material still had a good margin in this case. In other words, the unexpected behavior seen in the heat shield did not pose a risk to the spacecraft. However, NASA would like to improve its modeling of this behavior so that it has a better idea of what to expect on future missions.
“When we do something unexpected, we drive around and try to find the root cause,” Hu said. “I think we are going to be very cautious and make sure we do due diligence. Vigilance is very important to us as we move the crew forward.”