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Successful completion of NASA’s moon mission draws attention to SpaceX

Successful completion of NASA’s moon mission draws attention to SpaceX

Successful completion of NASA's moon mission draws attention to SpaceX

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Suspended under parachutes, an astronautless capsule made a soft splash in the Pacific on Sunday, ending NASA’s Artemis I lunar mission.

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

The Artemis program is the successor to Apollo, and after years of delays and an ever-increasing price tag, the new rocket and spacecraft that will bring astronauts back to the Moon has performed as well as mission managers would have it. could have hoped.

“A new day has dawned and the Artemis generation is taking us there,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said on NASA TV after the splashdown.

The trip to the moon capped off a year of spectacular success for NASA. Its James Webb Space Telescope, which launched nearly a year ago, began returning stunning images of the cosmos this summer. Its DART mission showed in September that deliberately crashing into an asteroid could protect Earth in the future if a deadly space rock was discovered on a collision course with our planet.

With the conclusion of Artemis I, more attention will shift to SpaceX, the private rocket company founded by Elon Musk. NASA is relying on a version of Starship, the company’s next-generation spacecraft that has yet to fly in space, to land astronauts on the moon.

Just after noon EST on Sunday, the Orion crew capsule — where astronauts will sit on future flights — re-entered Earth’s atmosphere at 24,500 miles per hour. That was the mission’s last major objective: to demonstrate that the capsule’s heat shield could withstand temperatures of up to 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

By design, the capsule bounced off the upper air layer before re-entering a second time. It was the first time a capsule designed for astronauts performed the maneuver, known as the entry jump, which allows for more precise piloting to the landing site. As expected, there were two blackouts in communications as the heat of the encounter with the atmosphere created electrically charged gases around the capsule which blocked radio signals.

Before and after the blackouts, live video from outside Orion’s window showed impressive views of the larger and larger Earth.

At 12:40 p.m. Eastern Time, the capsule settled into the Pacific Ocean off Mexico’s Baja Peninsula. Ship salvage crews aboard the USS Portland encountered high winds and rough seas with waves four to five feet high.

Over the next few hours, recovery teams work to pull Orion out of the water. It will be returned to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida for inspection.

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

“If you asked me to rate it, I’d give us an A+,” Catherine Koerner, deputy associate administrator for Exploration Systems Development at NASA, told NASA TV as Orion approached. of Earth on Sunday morning. “We learned how the spacecraft works and we learned how to fly this incredible machine.”

During the 26 days of Artemis I, glitches appeared as expected, but the flight seemed devoid of major malfunctions that would require lengthy investigation and redesign.

“It’s a great demonstration that this stuff works,” said Daniel L. Dumbacher, executive director of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. Mr. Dumbacher oversaw early work on the Space Launch System more than a decade ago, when he was one of NASA’s top human spaceflight managers.

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.

“From my perspective, it certainly meets expectations, if not more,” said Jeff Bingham, a former Republican aide to the Senate subcommittee that shaped the legislation in 2010 ordering NASA to build the space launch system. “I feel good about the fact that what we wanted to come to fruition.”

Even Lori Garver, a former NASA assistant administrator who preferred to look to private companies to come up with more innovative rocket designs that could have been built faster and cheaper, acknowledged that the Artemis I flight did well. unfolded.

“It’s fantastic that it works,” she said. “It’s a huge relief and excitement at NASA.”

The space agency now appears to be in good shape to launch the next mission, Artemis II, as planned in 2024. This flight will send four astronauts to the Moon, without landing, and then to Earth.

The moon landing is scheduled for the third Artemis mission, in which the Space Launch System and Orion will carry four astronauts to a large looping orbit around the moon. This task will not require abilities beyond those demonstrated during Artemis I and Artemis II.

The manufacture of equipment for these missions is already well advanced. The Orion capsule for Artemis II is already largely built at the Kennedy Space Center. The Orion service module, built by Airbus as part of the European Space Agency’s contributions to lunar missions, was delivered last year. This weekend, the lower part of the rocket that will launch Artemis III arrived at Kennedy for installation.

But Artemis III will rely on a third essential piece: a lander built by SpaceX. And for this part of the mission, Mr. Musk’s company will have to achieve a series of technological marvels that have never been achieved before.

“I think all eyes start to turn to the lander at some point,” said Ms. Garver, whose work under the Obama administration helped lay the groundwork for SpaceX’s current program of flying astronauts. to the International Space Station.

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

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

For Artemis III, the lander will dock with the Orion spacecraft above the moon.

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

But getting the lander into lunar orbit will be far from easy.

On the one hand, it will take at least three different ships. The Starship system is a two-stage rocket: a reusable booster known as Super Heavy with the Starship spacecraft on top. After reaching orbit, the tanks on the second stage – the Starship spacecraft – will be nearly empty, with not enough propellant to head for the moon.

So, SpaceX will first launch a Starship that will essentially serve as an in-orbit gas station. Then it will perform a series of launches — Mr. Musk said no more than eight will be needed—a tank version of Starship to transport the propellant to the Starship gas station.

The final launch is to be the Starship Lunar Lander, which will sneak up to the Starship gas station in orbit and refill its tanks. The lunar lander will then finally be ready to head for the moon.

While NASA’s Space Launch System rocket only flies once and all the parts end up in the ocean as trash, SpaceX’s Starship is designed to be fully reusable. This will make launches frequent and cheap, says Musk.

Before Artemis III, SpaceX must first perform an uncrewed test to show that it can indeed perform a rapid succession of Starship launches, reliably transfer thrusters to orbit, and land safely on the moon.

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

“Knowing what I think I know about the state of our research into microgravity propellant transfer, we have a long way to go,” Dumbacher said.

Rocket launches also remain risky, so the multitude of starship launches required for Artemis III increases the chance that one will fail, scuttling the entire effort.

By entrusting the development of the lunar lander to SpaceX, NASA hopes that Mr. Musk’s company’s innovative approach will deliver a lander faster at a lower cost than a NASA-led program.

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

Mr Musk has also expanded his portfolio of businesses with the purchase of Twitter, where the turmoil following his takeover of the social media company now takes up much of his time and attention.

“It’s new,” Ms. Garver said. “Elon’s concerns have escalated,” though she said she wasn’t sure the extent of those directly affecting work at SpaceX.

CNBC reported last month that SpaceX has shaken up the direction of its Texas Starship operation with Gwynne Shotwell, president of SpaceX, and Mark Juncosa, the company’s vice president of vehicle engineering, now overseeing the site.

Last week, Mr. Musk said on Twitter that he continues to oversee both SpaceX and Tesla, his electric car company, “but the teams there are so good that often I’m not needed.”

Mr Bingham said he was hopeful Starship would succeed, but “there is a lot of uncertainty there, and it is worrying.”

If SpaceX does indeed succeed with Starship, NASA will have funded much of the development of a spacecraft capable of taking astronauts to Mars at the bargain price of a lunar lander.

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