Bad news for the 3 Artemis Missions: These days, the mood that you feel in the rooms of NASA seems to be back to the best times. There is euphoria for the Artemis program, praise is being sung for the Space Launch System rocket, and plans are being made for the moves that should soon put man back on the Moon.
For next November, then, the departure of the Artemis I mission is being prepared. This will be the second unmanned test flight of the Orion capsule and the first launch of the rocket.
A mission of extraordinary importance and long duration (three weeks), which after half a century from Apollo 17 will bring a NASA vehicle to circumnavigate the Moon. Great excitement and a lot of optimism, so… But are things really like that?
Are NASA officials really living the typical exaltation of the moment and trust that the mission will really start next November? Officially, yes… NASA is still holding on to the possibility of a 2021 launch date for the debut flight of its Space Launch System rocket.
In early September, in fact, a spokesman for the agency publicly stated that “NASA is working towards a launch for the Artemis I mission by the end of this year”.
However, several unofficial sources are certain that the Artemis I mission will not depart until next spring, also assuming a likely shift to next summer.
The space agency, in fact, according to the same sources would already be delayed by about two months compared to the targets that it had set for testing and for integration of the rocket at the Kennedy Space Center; and pre-flight tests still seem to be beyond coming.
Earlier this summer – for example – technicians and engineers in Florida are working on vibration tests of the assembled rocket, with the goal of better understanding the difference between the natural vibrations of the full stack versus those caused by external forces.
NASA originally hoped to complete this work in July, but the vibration testing is ongoing in the Vehicle Assembly Building at Kennedy Space Center. Following this testing, the mass simulator will be removed, and the Orion spacecraft with its launch abort system will be stacked carefully on top of the rocket.
This process, however, will take several weeks. Following this assembly and further tests, the SLS stack will be rolled to Launch Pad 39B for a “wet dress rehearsal,” during which the vehicle will be fueled and much of an actual countdown will be simulated.
However, the vehicle’s engines will not be fired. Reportedly, this test will probably take place in November or December. After that, the vehicle will be returned to the Vehicle Assembly Building for final checks and closures.
It follows from all this that, assuming that the general test is successful and that the other activities continue according to the program, the SLS rocket could be launched no earlier than next spring.
However, if there are further delays, or if the dress rehearsal reveals new problems, the launch can slip until next summer. Recall then that, to aggravate the situation, there is also the slowdown in the development of the Human Landing System, the vehicle that will carry the crew of Artemis III from lunar orbit to the surface.
Last April, NASA had selected the SpaceX Starship as the only vehicle intended to transport astronauts on the lunar surface. A choice that has raised the protests of the other two competing companies, Blue Origin and Dynetics, since the agency had initially decided to want to develop in parallel two shuttles – and then assign two contracts.
A choice then changed at the last minute due to the reduction of the budget available for the Artemis mission. Blue Origin in particular did not accept to be set aside and has initiated an appeal that ended up on the benches of the Senate – an action that had just temporarily frozen the funds allocated to SpaceX.
A few weeks ago, Jeff Bezos (who in the meantime has gained a lot of media attention for his flight into space) even went so far as to offer NASA a discount of over two billion dollars in case Blue Origin is awarded a new contract.
But this last-minute maneuver did not help, and a few days ago the Government Accountability Office rejected the appeal filed by Bezos’ company.
This has definitively released the 2.9 billion dollars allocated to SpaceX for the development of the lunar lander, but meanwhile, the delay accumulated from Spacex has exceeded the three months A delay that, if confirmed, will affect not only Artemis I but also the rest of the program, causing manned missions to slip (and I’ll tell you why in a moment) well beyond the stated limit of the year 2024.
It may well be that NASA can make a miracle, and in the end, it will be able to respect the schedule… but if it doesn’t succeed it would be a catastrophe in terms of image and huge damage for the whole complex organizational machine.
And all this leaks out at the same time in which Elon Musk makes it known that SpaceX is proceeding at such a fast pace in preparing the lunar module that it is almost certain that it will be ready even before 2024.
The agency admits and doesn’t admit this state of affairs: it flaunts optimism, but then tries to justify itself by bringing up Covid and the scarcity of funds. A schizophrenic attitude that has its roots in the awareness of being working on a carrier rocket, the SLS, which is in practice a stillborn project, made obsolete by the infinitely lower costs of Elon Musk’s Starship.
“Hey, guys, just a moment before we continue… BE sure to join the Insane Curiosity Channel… Click on the bell, you will help us to make products of ever-higher quality!” For that matter, we all know how that went.
Concerned about job losses after the space shuttle retired, Congress imposed this rocket on the space agency, down to dictating its various components to ensure that space shuttle contractors such as Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and Aerojet Rocketdyne continue to receive substantial space program funding.
Each contractor was given a “cost plus” contract that ensured funding but provided little incentive for on-time delivery. In short, even psychologically it is not easy to work serenely on a project that is already known to have no real future!
And on August 10 – to confirm our pessimism – came a report from the NASA Office of Inspector General, a body set up to provide independent auditing to the agency.
Surprisingly, according to the report, the biggest delay was not caused by technical problems in the preparation of the rocket and the Orion capsule, nor by the pandemic or the legal trouble with Bezos, but by the bad management of the design of the new spacesuits!
The so-called xEmu (Exploration Extravehicular Mobility Unit), the elegant last generation spacesuits that should serve astronauts to perform extravehicular activities on our satellite.
Remember that for Artemis I (which will be a crewless mission) and for Artemis II (where the crew will not descend on the lunar soil) the suits may not be necessary. They will be instead essential for Artemis III, where the descent on the Moon surface is foreseen.
The suit is obviously one of the most important components for space exploration: it must ensure the survival of the astronauts in all conditions and must support them in non-vehicular activities.
Currently, the astronauts of the International Space Station still use suits designed in the late ’70s for the Space Shuttle program; suits that have a countless series of criticalities.
They are heavy and rigid, they limit the movements of the astronauts, they do not ensure optimal climate control and they can be worn only by people with the physique corresponding to their structural characteristics since they cannot be adapted.
But above all, they have been realized to last a maximum of fifteen years; and instead, between revisions and expensive maintenance, they are still in use today, well beyond what was initially foreseen.
The suits under development are the first designed for the exploration of the Moon since the Apollo program and aim to offer astronauts a significant qualitative leap in terms of mobility, with the ability to bend over, bend their legs, and walk freely.
Do you know the archival footage of Apollo astronauts hopping like rabbits on the surface of the Moon? It was not a technique to adapt to lunar gravity, but it was the only type of movement allowed by the suits of that time, too rigid at the bottom to allow astronauts to walk normally.
The new suits will have to allow astronauts to stay for longer periods outside and perform a greater number of even more complex activities. The project of these new suits started 14 years ago. And although a prototype was ready as early as 2019, the xEmu have not yet reached the safety standards necessary to be used in space.
According to the report of ‘NASA’s inspector general, due to the closure of the laboratories, offices and companies involved the coronavirus pandemic has had an impact quantifiable in about three months of delay in the development of the new suit.
The biggest blow, however, was dealt by the cut in funding decided by Congress. This led to a chain of technical and managerial dysfunctions that brought the delay in delivery to no less than a year and a half.
The inspector general also highlighted several problems due to the structure of the project itself, the hiring of unqualified personnel, and the lack of communication between the many players involved in the project.
Finally, it is necessary to add the delays in the award of the tender for the lunar lander, on which depends the development of systems to interface the life support systems of the suits with those of the aircraft.
“The program,” the inspector says in his report, “called for two flight-ready xEMUs, as well as a test suit and a demonstration suit for the Space Station. The first two, those for the Artemis III mission, were to be delivered by November 2024, but that goal no longer seems attainable.
In fact, the schedule has accumulated about 20 months of delays in design and verification testing. These delays, to be attributed also to the reduction of funds, to the pandemic, and to the objective technical difficulties, leave few doubts: the descent to the Moon by the end of 2024, to which NASA is currently aiming, is not feasible.
The first suits, in the best hypothesis, will be in fact delivered in May 2025, and in the end, will have cost not less than one billion dollars”.
However, the inspector did not indicate a new plausible launch date. It will now be up to NASA to make its evaluations and adapt its programs according to the indications of the report.
A bad situation… unless NASA receives help from the private sector on which the agency has invested so much in recent years. Without going too far, it could be the same SpaceX to come to the rescue, especially to avoid the forced block of a part of its activity.
And in fact, a first lifesaver was launched by Elon Musk, who immediately declared via Twitter: “SpaceX could do it if need be”. A response from NASA should arrive soon, but at the moment it seems that to see a new lunar landing in world vision we will have to wait a little more.
Even if something tells us that this time NASA will do everything to meet its commitments to the world. If only to start in the best possible way what to all intents and purposes has become a “second space race” between the political and economic powers of the planet.
Meanwhile, current NASA Administrator Bill Nelson addressed the 2024 readiness question during a recent interview: “I’m soberly realistic. The goal is 2024, but space is hard. And we know when you are pushing the edge of the envelope, often there are delays. There’s a No. 1 factor and that’s safety, and it’s involving humans. There might be a delay, but the goal is late 2024.”
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