The Orion spacecraft built for the Artemis 1 mission after the completion of environmental testing at NASA’s Plum Brook Station in Ohio in March. (credit: NASA/Marvin Smith)
As we navigate through the COVID-19 pandemic, overcoming the immediate crisis is the top priority. Recovery will require thoughtful planning, investment, and patience. At the same time, it is important that we look beyond the crisis toward grand efforts that push boundaries and fuel humanity’s aspirations. That is why we continue to work on Artemis, our nation’s program to send humans forward to the Moon and on to Mars.
The Artemis endeavor relies on thousands of companies across the entire United States that work with NASA and our international partners to develop the hardware and systems needed for the sustainable exploration of deep space.
The key systems and hardware include the Orion crew vehicle, the first spacecraft in history capable of carrying humans on long-duration missions in deep space; the Space Launch System (SLS), the only rocket in development capable of launching humans, habitats, and support systems to deep space; Exploration Ground Systems, the infrastructure necessary to integrate and launch Orion and SLS; the lunar Gateway, a spaceship that will orbit around the Moon allowing astronauts to work in lunar orbit and enabling new technology and science demonstrations; and the Human Landing System (HLS) landers to transport humans to the surface of the Moon.
As companies work on developing and building these systems every day, they fuel the economy in their respective states and support thousands of jobs.
In addition to these core programs, Artemis encompasses entrepreneurial efforts that are focused on building the path for science and technology at the Moon. Through the Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program, companies are partnering with NASA to carry payloads that will conduct science investigations and demonstrate technologies on the lunar surface. The first CLPS lunar landers are scheduled to launch to the Moon next year.
The Artemis program and its vision for sustainable human exploration beyond low Earth orbit is also the source of opportunity for technology maturation. Through NASA’s Announcement of Collaboration Opportunity (ACO), and through its Tipping Point awards, key technology is being developed through public-private partnerships to sustain the Moon-to-Mars vision. That technology includes lightweight rocket engine combustion chambers to reduce manufacturing costs, autonomous in-space plant growth systems, and in-space manufacturing to enable exploration missions that are currently size-constrained and reduce launch costs.
With careful consideration of social distancing rules and other measures focused on safety during the pandemic, industry and government continue to achieve major Artemis milestones.
In March, the Artemis 1 Orion spacecraft arrived at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) after a successful environmental test campaign at the agency’s Plum Brook Station in Ohio. At KSC, which is at stage 3 of NASA’s pandemic response plan, the Orion team is working on pressurizing the capsule’s propulsion system and installing the spacecraft’s solar array wings on the service module. NASA’s stage 3 requires employees to telework but allows on-site activities that are limited to mission-essential personnel, like Orion. The Artemis 1 Orion work at KSC, which is slated to be done by this summer, will put the spacecraft into the right path for launch.
Meanwhile, across different sites in the United States, engineers are using augmented reality technology to assemble complex hardware on the Artemis 2 Orion spacecraft’s crew module, heat shield, crew seats, and more. Also, the launch abort motor for the Artemis 2 Launch Abort System (LAS) shipped to KSC from Northrop Grumman’s Utah facilities on April 13. Artemis 2 is the second mission in the Artemis program and the first one to send a crew for a trip around the Moon.
The SLS team also continues to work on every possible aspect of the mission while NASA follows recommended public safety guidelines. NASA’s Stennis Space Center, Marshall Space Flight Center, and the Michoud Assembly Facility have moved to stage 4 of NASA’s response framework, precluding all on-site work related to Green Run testing and to hardware manufacturing and assembly at those facilities.
However, SLS flight software work continues virtually, and the SLS team is completing the tasks necessary to ensure a quick return to Green Run testing at Stennis. On-site essential activities also continue at open contractor facilities and at NASA centers that are at stage 3. For example, SLS stage controller software work continues at a contractor’s facility in Florida; work by suppliers manufacturing parts for the Artemis 2 SLS core stage is moving ahead; and work continues on casting boosters for Artemis 3, the first mission in the program to land astronauts on the Moon.
Meanwhile, NASA is moving forward with planning for Gateway. The agency recently released a report, titled “NASA’s Plan for Sustained Lunar Exploration and Development,” which outlines the function of the Gateway in different stages of the Artemis program and reiterates the role of international partners in bringing the spaceship together. In addition, the agency recently awarded to SpaceX an Artemis contract for Gateway Logistics Services program, for the delivery of cargo, experiments, and other supplies for the Gateway. NASA announced the three Human Landing System awardees—Blue Origin, Dynetics, and SpaceX—April 30.
The entrepreneurial portion of the Artemis program is also on the move. NASA recently tested next-generation thrusters that are designed to reduce spacecraft cost, mass, and power, three elements that constrain every space mission. This new technology will be tried for the first time by a CLPS lunar lander next year and will facilitate future missions.
The progress and innovation we are seeing stem from an effort to meet the challenge to settle sustainably beyond low Earth orbit. The effort to return humans to the Moon advances our understanding of the universe and of our own planet, and encourages entrepreneurship. While the current global crisis continues to dominate the headlines, progress toward a brighter future continues. Achieving a mission to land humans at the lunar south pole, while enhancing that effort with aspirations for a human mission to Mars, will be a critical source of unity and inspiration for Americans, and for humanity.