NASA’s new rocket blasts open the doors of its mobile launch tower

NASA’s new rocket blasts open the doors of its mobile launch tower

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


So far, NASA’s ambitious Artemis I mission appears to be going well. The Orion spacecraft performed a series of propulsive burns, flying smoothly past the moonand will now test its capabilities in deep space.

On Monday evening, after a flight around the moon, the spacecraft returned images on the flyback to Earth via the Deep Space Network. Although there are no humans aboard Orion during this test flight, they will be during its next mission. The views of the Moon from a human spacecraft – the first in more than half a century – were brilliant.

“Today was a great day,” said Howard Hu, program manager for the Orion spacecraft, speaking about the launch of the spacecraft and its images. “It’s a dream for many of us who work at NASA. We were like kids in a candy store.”

The rocket rides

During a press conference in Houston on Monday, Artemis I mission manager Mike Sarafin also provided an update on the performance of the Space Launch System rocket. “The results were astounding,” Sarafin said.

All separation events, including the solid rocket boosters and the first and second stages, were nominal. Every performance metric for thrust and accuracy was either on target or within less than 0.3 percent of predicted, Sarafin said. Regarding the launch of the Orion spacecraft with the desired payload, the rocket deviated by only three miles, a remarkably small margin of error.

Sarafin acknowledged that the extreme pressure of the Space Launch System rocket caused some damage to the mobile launch tower that supports the rocket during refueling and countdown operations. There was damage to the base of the launch rack where the boosters produce thrust and a break in some pneumatic lines that carry gases to the vehicle. The strong jolt from the launch also broke the tower’s access elevator and blew away its doors.

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

Moving out

So far, Orion has exceeded expectations in space. The solar panels on its service module, provided by the European Space Agency, provided 22 percent more power than expected, Hu said. All of the spacecraft’s thrusters, from the large main engine to the small reaction control system, performed as intended. A visual inspection of the vehicle by cameras mounted on its solar arrays revealed no concerns about micrometeorite debris or other problems.

The spacecraft’s next big move will come on Friday, when its main engine will run for just over a minute to put it into a far retrograde orbit around the moon, taking it far into deep space to test Orion’s ability to maintain a constant internal temperature and load on other systems. The vehicle will then fly again to the moon on Dec. 5 before burning its engines for 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.


The Dec. 5 flyby should produce even better images, as during Monday’s flyby the vehicle’s closest approach was on the far side of the moon, which was in darkness at the time. The upcoming flyby will be in daylight, near the Apollo landing sites, which can be captured by the vehicle’s camera.

NASA plans to return Orion to Earth mid-day on Dec. 11, splashing down off the coast of Southern California. Sarafin said he and other senior officials working on Artemis will remain nervous until then, even though everything has gone well so far.

“It’s a relief to me that we’re underway,” he said. “But there is a heightened sense of awareness. We are on day six of a 26 day mission. I will have a good rest after the descent and the recovery is complete.’

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