Breaking Down NASA’s Hardware For Returning Astronauts to the Moon
Matthew Greenwood posted on July 26, 2019 |

On the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landing, Vice President Mike Pence unveiled the name of the mission to take astronauts back there. Named Artemis—sister of the Greek god Apollo—this mission will see humans return to the moon.

Lockheed Martin’s Orion spacecraft, European Space Agency’s (ESA) service module, and Boeing’s Space Launch System (SLS) rocket will get them there.

The Artemis Missions

In 2021, Artemis-1 will launch the SLS and Orion spacecraft for an uncrewed trial run around the Moon to make sure all systems are working. If all goes according to plan, in 2024 the Artemis-3 mission will see astronauts back on the lunar surface…and Artemis 4 through 8 will supply a sustained presence on the Moon.

NASA simulation of the countdown to liftoff for Artemis-1.

The Space Launch System

Boeing’s SLS is a big, big $14 billion rocket. The biggest one ever built by the United States.

It will be powered by two five-segment solid rocket boosters and four RS-25 liquid propellant engines at the base of the 200-foot-tall core stage. After reaching space, the rocke’s Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage will propel Orion towards the Moon.

But it’s not just a big rocket. The SLS is a modular platform that will be made up of interchangeable parts, offering flexibility and the capacity to evolve as payload demands change—which they undoubtedly will as humans venture further into space. Not only will it carry the Orion, it could be modified to transport deep space habitats, scientific craft or future robotic missions to planets like Mars and Jupiter.

In fact, it’s already evolving: the next iteration, Block 1B, will use a new, more powerful upper stage that could transport cargo and astronauts further into deep space. And the Block 2 will carry even more punch than that.

According to Boeing, the core stage integration, assembly and testing of the rocket to be used in the Artemis-1 mission are in the final stages.

The Orion Spacecraft

Sitting atop the SLS will be the Orion crewed spacecraft. Looking like a bigger, more modern version of the Apollo space capsules, Orion consists of five components.

The Launch Abort System is an escape mechanism with rockets that pull the astronauts to safety if the booster malfunctions in the early stages of the flight. The Crew Module will be where up to six astronauts live—on deep space missions that could last three weeks. The Service Module, built by Airbus for the ESA, supplies oxygen, propulsion and electricity to the Orion. The Spacecraft Adapter is a series of panels that protect the Service Module as it flies through the Earth’s atmosphere. And the Instrument Unit houses guidance and control hardware for the booster rocket.

NASA engineers have already started integrating the two principal components: the Crew Module and the Service Module. After another round of tests it will be shipped to the Vehicle Assembly Building at the Kennedy Space Center for integration with the SLS rocket.

Behind Schedule

As impressive as the technology is, it has its detractors. Nicknamed the “rocket to nowhere” by skeptics, the SLS has come under sustained criticism due to repeated delays and cost overruns. A recent audit of the SLS has shown it to be a hot mess of a project. Its costs have repeatedly been inflated and the audit claims NASA has not been transparent about the mounting price tag, which has already grown by almost 30 per cent or about $2 billion. The Orion has also come under scrutiny for similar cost overruns.

The launch date keeps moving back, too. The SLS was originally supposed to be ready for its maiden launch in 2017—and now it’s not expected till 2021 at the earliest, with the possibility of further setbacks.

The SLS Has Competitors

Another reason for skepticism: the growth of the private sector space industry. The SLS used to have a considerable advantage over other commercial rockets: it is the only one that can carry Orion, astronauts and large cargo to the Moon.

But that doesn’t mean it’s the only option.

SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy and United Launch Alliance’s Delta IV Heavy will also haul big payloads into space. In fact, the Delta Heavy already transported a stripped-down version of the Orion in 2014.

But they won’t match the SLS’s capability. A Delta IV can take 62,540 pounds of payload into low earth orbit and a Falcon Heavy’s payload capacity is almost 141,000 pounds. In theory, the SLS can haul 209,000 pounds into space.

The space agency has considered an alternative: getting the Orion and an upper-stage rocket into orbit on separate trips, docking them together in space and then proceeding to the Moon. But the docking technology required hasn’t been developed yet.

NASA is under considerable pressure from the White House to get astronaut boots back on lunar soil—on an accelerated timeline. The agency originally targeted 2028 before President Trump demanded it be done by 2024. NASA may be forced to turn to commercial rockets to meet that goal. Bridenstine may be considering using a commercial rocket for Artemis-1.

If NASA turns to private companies to launch Orion, that could further undermine the SLS’s viability. It would also be a significant about-face for the organization, which for years has been committed to an SLS-only strategy for deep-space exploration.

But despite ballooning costs and delays, NASA is still committed to the SLS long-term. Bridenstine called it, “a critical piece of what the United States of America needs to build…we need the SLS, and we need the Orion crew capsule.”

The technology is impressive and the plan is ambitious—but they’re not immune to concerns, setbacks and unexpected complications. However, NASA is convinced that they have the tools to go back to the Moon.

“Similar to the 1960s, we too have an opportunity to take a giant leap forward for all of humanity,” said Bridenstine. “And we are well on our way to getting this done.”

Read more about NASA’s competitors vying to get to the moon at Who Will Win the Private Sector Space Race?

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