The Moon or bust, says NASA, after successful SLS/Orion test flight

Heat shield sustained more damage than expected, but this shouldn't discourage astronauts

NASA is ready to fly a crew of astronauts to the Moon next year after the success of the first test flight of its Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and Orion capsule. 

After months of delay due to technical issues and bad weather, the SLS, with the Orion spacecraft onboard, finally took off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida in November 2022. 

The mission, dubbed Artemis I, involved flying the SLS into space, releasing Orion and sending it into lunar orbit, and returning the capsule back to Earth to be recovered safely in one piece. Initial analysis of flight data gathered from the mission shows it was successful: the SLS performed better than expected and pulled off a near-perfect trans-lunar injection burn to deliver Orion to the Moon.

Orion fulfilled 161 test objectives and was more energy efficient than predicted, generating 20 per cent more power than predicted while consuming about 25 per cent less power than expected. All maneuvers – including flying to and from the Moon, returning to Earth, and releasing the parachute for splashdown into the Pacific Ocean – were executed without any major problems. 

There are, however, a few niggling complications. Orion's latching current limiters – which act like circuit breakers to transfer and distribute power from its solar panels – switched open randomly during its flight for unknown reasons. Also, the material covering the heat shield – used to protect the capsule and prevent it and any occupants from incineration as Orion reenters Earth's atmosphere – deteriorated more than NASA thought it would.

Little things like that.

The mobile launcher part of the SLS also sustained more damage than expected. NASA said its cryogenic fuel lines corroded, while 60 panels and cabinets broke, as did its elevators and blast shields. Officials continue to review hundreds of gigabytes worth of data gathered from the mission.

Meanwhile NASA is gearing up for the Artemis II mission, which will fly a more powerful version of the SLS rocket – and carry a group of astronauts inside Orion.

"We're learning as much as we possibly can from Artemis I to ensure we fully understand every aspect of our systems and feed those lessons learned into how we plan for and fly crewed missions," said Jim Free, NASA associate administrator for the Exploration Systems Development Mission Directorate, in a prepared statement. "Safely flying crew is our top priority for Artemis II." 

Engineers will, for example, modify the mobile launcher for the upcoming Artemis mission. They will build an emergency egress system at the launchpad in case the crew needs to make a last-minute exit from the rocket.

NASA hopes to launch Artemis II in November 2024, and fly the first woman and next man to orbit the Moon. The eventual goal is to land a crew of astronauts on the Moon once again, after humans first set foot on its surface over half a century ago. ®

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