In a teleconference Tuesday (March 7), NASA management discussed Orion’s performance on the historic Artemis 1 mission that saw the spacecraft orbit the moon before returning to Earth after 25 days. Orion was taken to lunar orbit after launch on November 16, 2022 atop the agency’s Space Launch System (SLS) rocket, the most powerful rocket ever launched.John Honeycutt, manager of NASA’s SLS program, said during Tuesday’s teleconference that the agency was surprised by how well both the rocket and the spacecraft flew on the test flight, which was the first for SLS and the second for Orion. “We’ve continued to see outstanding performance from SLS, and it’s done an excellent job meeting all of our expectations and actually exceeding most of them,” Honeycutt said, adding that “post-flight data analysis continues to show that SLS is ready to support manned Artemis missions.”
That’s not to say that every aspect of the mission went perfectly. During Tuesday’s call, NASA program managers revealed that Orion’s heat shield did not work as expected and lost more material than the agency had planned. Nevertheless, NASA management is confident that everything will be ready for the manned flight around the moon of Artemis 2, which is planned for next year.
Related: NASA’s Artemis Program: Everything You Need to Know
Howard Hu, manager of NASA’s Orion program, praised the crew module’s performance during the test flight, noting that NASA was able to achieve 161 overall test objectives planned for the mission, even adding another 21 during the flight based on the spacecraft’s performance.
“We also accomplished what our first goal was, which is to return the crew module safely back to Earth from 24,500 miles per hour to a landing about 16 miles per hour when it landed, and we were able to land within 2, 4 miles from our target,” Hu said during Tuesday’s teleconference. “Our requirement was 6.2 miles. So really good performance as we were able to return from the moon.”
One of the main points of discussion on Tuesday’s teleconference was the heat shield on the Orion spacecraft. largest ever built. When the Orion crew module was inspected after splashdown, NASA discovered much more variation in the heat shield’s performance than they had expected.
“Some of the expected coal material that we would expect to come home dissipated differently than our computer models and our soil tests predicted,” Hu said. “So we had more release of the charred material during re-entry before we landed than we expected.”
Hu explained that NASA teams are examining a wide range of data related to the performance of Orion’s heat shield, including images and videos of reentry, onboard sensor readings and even X-rays of sample materials taken from the shield.
“Overall, there is a lot of work to be done in this study going forward,” Hu said. “We just started that effort because we just gathered all that information. These samples, the videos, the images and the data from the spacecraft itself and correlated them together. And now we’re evaluating that data and moving forward with that evaluation.”
Despite the unexpected loss and irregular charring of heat shield material during reentry, NASA program managers stressed that they feel confident that the crewed Artemis 2 mission will be able to launch on schedule in 2024.
“We’re making great progress on the Orion side, so I’m very excited to complete this assessment, implement lessons learned from Artemis 2, and see the crew fly on Artemis 2,” Hu said.
NASA is currently aiming to launch Artemis 2 in November 2024. The mission will send a crew of astronauts on an eight-day mission around the moon and back to test Orion’s performance, crew interfaces, and guidance and navigation systems.
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