A new NASA rocket blows open the doors of the mobile launch tower

Zoom in / The Orion spacecraft approaches the Moon on Monday.

NASA

So far, NASA’s ambitious Artemis I mission appears to be going smoothly. The Orion spacecraft has carried out a number of thrust burns, flying smoothly across the Moon, and will now test its capabilities in deep space.

Monday evening, after a flyby of the Moon, the spacecraft returned images of its flyby back to Earth via the Deep Space Network. While there are no humans aboard Orion during this test flight, they will be during its next mission. Views of the moon from a human spacecraft – the first in more than half a century – were breathtaking.

“Today was an amazing day,” said Howard Hu, Orion spacecraft program manager, speaking of the spacecraft’s performance and images. “This is a dream for many of us who work at NASA. We were like kids in a candy store.”

Rocket ride

On Monday during a press conference in Houston, Artemis I mission manager Mike Sarafin also gave an update on the Space Launch System rocket’s performance. “The results were amazing,” Sarafin said.

All class events, including solid rocket boosters and first and second stages, were nominal. Sarafin said each performance metric in terms of propulsion and accuracy was either on target or 0.3 percent less than expected. In terms of dropping the Orion spacecraft in the desired payload, the rocket was only three miles away, a remarkably small error.

Sarafin acknowledged that the intense thrust of the SLS rocket caused some damage to the mobile launch tower that supported the rocket during refueling and countdown operations. There was damage to the base of the launch pad where the boosters produce thrust and a break in some of the pneumatic lines carrying the gases to the vehicle. The violent vibration from the launch also broke the tower’s access elevator and blew off its doors.

And while some of that damage was greater than expected, Sarafin said all of the problems are fixable. “It will be ready for the Artemis II mission,” he said of the launch tower.

move out

So far Orion has exceeded expectations in space. Hu said the solar panels in its service module, provided by the European Space Agency, saved 22 percent more energy than expected. All of the spacecraft’s propulsion engines, from its large main engine down to its small reaction control system, are working as intended. A visual inspection of the vehicle, from cameras mounted on its solar arrays, found no micrometeorite debris concerns or other issues.

The spacecraft’s next big step will come on Friday, when its main engine will burn for just over a minute to put it into a distant retrograde orbit around the Moon, and whisk it away into deep space to test Orion’s ability to sustain it. Constant indoor temperature and other systems stress. Then the rover will fly by the Moon again on December 5 before its engines burn home.

A view of the Orion capsule, its service module, and the Moon.
Zoom in / A view of the Orion capsule, its service module, and the Moon.

NASA

The Dec. 5 flyby should yield better images, because during Monday’s flyby, the rover’s closest approach was on the far side of the moon, which was in darkness at the time. The next flight will be in broad daylight, near the Apollo landing sites, which may be photographed by the spacecraft’s camera.

NASA plans to return Orion to Earth around midday on December 11th, plunging off the coast of Southern California. Sarafin said that he and other senior officials working on Artemis would remain nervous until then, even though everything has gone well so far.

“For me, there is a relief that we are working in full swing,” he said. “But there is a heightened sense of awareness. We are on day six of a 26-day mission. I will rest well after my splash and recovery will be complete.”

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