Cosmic Space

The stage is set for NASA moon rocket’s rehearsal

For the first time in nearly 50 years, a NASA rocket capable of sending humans to the moon is sitting on its launch pad.

The overnight rollout of NASA’s Space Launch System rocket, topped by an Orion capsule, evoked memories of the Saturn V rocket launches that sent Apollo astronauts to the moon from Kennedy Space Center in Florida between 1968 and 1972.

The SLS is being prepared for a monthlong test mission known as Artemis 1, which will send the Orion on an uncrewed flight around the moon and back. That flight, currently set for the May-June time frame, is due to be followed by a crewed round-the-moon mission in 2024, and then a mission to send astronauts to lunar surface in 2025.

The precise timing of all these missions depends on the outcome of on-the-ground tests of the multibillion-dollar rocket. Those tests are due to take place over the next couple of weeks and come to a climax next month with a dress rehearsal for launch.

The stage for the rehearsal was set when the 322-foot-tall, 3.5 million-pound rocket rolled out of Kennedy Space Center’s giant Vehicle Assembly Building on a crawler-transporter that was retooled from the space shuttle era. After a trek that took nearly 11 hours, the rocket was fixed in place at around 4:15 a.m. ET (1:15 a.m. PT) today at Launch Complex 39B, which was first used for Apollo 10’s launch in 1969.

Universe Today

NASA’s first Artemis moon landing slips to 2025

NASA has pushed back the timetable for landing astronauts on the moon for the first time in more than a half-century from 2024 to no earlier than 2025.

Blue Origin’s unsuccessful legal challenge to a $2.9 billion lunar lander contract awarded to SpaceX was one of the factors behind the delay in the Artemis moon program, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said during a Nov. 9 teleconference.

Nelson also pointed to Congress’ previous decisions not to fund the lander program as fully as NASA wanted, plus delays forced by the COVID-19 pandemic and the fact that “the Trump administration target of a 2024 human landing was not grounded in technical feasibility.”

“After having taken a good look under the hood these past six months, it’s clear to me that the agency will need to make serious changes for the long-term success of the program,” he told reporters.


Aerojet signs up to build hardware for moon trips

Aerojet - Lockheed Martin signing
Lockheed Martin’s Mike Hawes and Scott Jones sign copies of a contract for Orion rocket hardware, after Aerojet Rocketdyne’s Ken Young and Cheryl Rehm take their turn. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

REDMOND, Wash. — Representatives of Aerojet Rocketdyne and Lockheed Martin put their signatures on a contract for up to $170 million worth of rocket hardware that’ll be installed on Orion spacecraft heading to the moon — with dozens of employees who’ll actually build that hardware watching the proceedings.

“These are the things you’re going to be talking to your grandchildren about,” Cheryl Rehm, Aerojet Rocketdyne’s senior director of Redmond programs, told company employees here at today’s signing ceremony.

The ceremony highlighted Redmond’s role in NASA’s Artemis moon landings.

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Orion spacecraft gets big-budget vote of support

Orion capsule
The Orion crew capsule meant for NASA’s uncrewed Artemis 1 mission around the moon and back is being prepared for its flight. (NASA Photo / Radislav Sinyak)

NASA says it’s ordering three more Orion spacecraft for missions to the moon, at a cost of $2.7 billion — and plans to order as many as nine more by 2030.

Today’s announcement signals NASA’s long-term commitment to its Artemis program for lunar exploration and settlement, with a crewed lunar landing planned for as early as 2024.

The Orion spacecraft for that mission, known as Artemis 3, is included in the newly announced order, along with the spacecraft for Artemis 4 and 5.

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NASA considers going commercial for moon flight

Orion spaceship
An artist’s conception shows NASA’s Orion deep-space crew capsule with its European Service Module placed beneath it and an upper stage powering it out of Earth orbit. (NASA Illustration)

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine told a Senate hearing today that his agency is looking into an option to double up commercial launch vehicles in order to keep a crucial test mission for its Orion spaceship and European-built service module on schedule for mid-2020.

The shift would take NASA’s own heavy-lift Space Launch System rocket, or SLS, out of the rotation for the uncrewed test flight around the moon, known as Exploration Mission 1 or EM-1.

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Systima wins contract for Orion space hardware

Orion egress test
Astronauts rehearse crew egress procedures using an Orion test model in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Texas in July 2017. (NASA Photo)

Systima Technologies says it’s been awarded a contract from Lockheed Martin Space Systems to provide pyrotechnically actuated hatch mechanisms for NASA’s Orion deep-space crew capsule.

The mechanisms will be part of a side hatch latch release system that would come into play in the event of an emergency landing condition after splashdown, the Kirkland, Wash.-based company said in a news release.

The Orion is currently in the midst of development, leading up to Exploration Mission-1, an uncrewed test flight beyond the moon and back that’s planned for the 2020 time frame. That would be followed by the first crewed flight, known as Exploration Mission-2, currently scheduled for as early as 2022. Lockheed Martin is the prime contractor for the multibillion-dollar Orion development program.

The mechanism that Systima is working on would be used on the EM-2 flight.

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Aerojet engineers win accolades from NASA

Erica Raine with Silver Snoopy
Aerojet engineer Erica Raine shows off her Silver Snoopy pin. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

REDMOND, Wash. — One of NASA’s most celebrated awards was handed out today, but it didn’t go to an astronaut. Instead, it was an astronaut who was doing the handing out.

The Silver Snoopy Award winner was the one holding a fussy 18-month-old toddler.

Erica Raine, an engineer at Aerojet Rocketdyne’s Redmond facility, received the Snoopy pin for work above and beyond the call to duty, resulting in the fabrication, testing delivery of eight auxiliary rocket engines for the service module on NASA’s Orion deep-space exploration vehicle. Raine was the lead engineer for the project.

The engines will be put to use on the Orion program’s uncrewed EM-1 test flight, which is due to launch in 2019 and travel beyond the moon and back.

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NASA plays it safe for SLS rocket’s first flight

SLS launch
An artist’s view shows NASA’s Space Launch System launching an Orion capsule. (NASA Illustration)

NASA has broken the news to the White House and the world that speeding up the first crewed flight of its exploration launch system wouldn’t be worth the added cost and risk.

That means the first launch of NASA’s heavy-lift Space Launch System will fly without astronauts, as originally planned. And it will fly later than planned: NASA officials said today that liftoff will have to be delayed to 2019, although it’s too early to be more precise about the time frame.

The determination comes after weeks of discussions focusing on whether the flight plan for what’s known as Exploration Mission 1, or EM-1, could be tweaked to put people on board. Such a scenario would give the White House more to celebrate in President Donald Trump’s first term.

“We decided that while it’s technically feasible … the baseline plan that we had in place was the best way for us to go,” Robert Lightfoot, NASA’s acting administrator, told reporters today during a teleconference.

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NASA looks into quicker trip beyond the moon

Image: Orion
An artist’s conception shows NASA’s Orion capsule in flight. (Credit: NASA)

NASA and its commercial partners say they’re studying the possibility of sending astronauts beyond the moon years earlier than planned, by putting a crew on the first flight of the space agency’s heavy-lift Space Launch System.

The NASA study, sparked in part by a desire for the Trump administration to do something dramatic in space during its first term, would consider whether such a flight could occur in 2019 or 2020.

The current plan calls for an uncrewed test flight of the SLS and NASA’s Orion capsule in late 2018, known as Exploration Mission-1 or EM-1. That mission would followed by a crewed test flight called EM-2 in the 2021-2023 time frame.

In a statement, NASA said acting administrator Robert Lightfoot asked Bill Gerstenmaier, the agency’s associate administrator for human exploration and operations, to assess whether the first crew could ride on EM-1 instead of EM-2.

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NASA tries to pack big vision in smaller budget

Image: SLS launch
NASA is developing a heavy-lift rocket known as the Space Launch System, shown in this artist’s conception. Spending in the category that includes the SLS and the Orion deep-space capsule would be trimmed in the budget proposed for the next fiscal year. (Credit: NASA)

Christmas has come and gone, and so has a bump in NASA’s spending plan: The agency’s proposed $19 billion budget for the next fiscal year, released today, represents a $300 million decline from this year’s level.

The money set aside for developing a new crew vehicle and heavy-lift rocket for deep-space exploration would be reduced by hundreds of millions of dollars, virtually guaranteeing a tussle with Congress.

Despite the reductions, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said the agency’s vision for space exploration and technology is undimmed.

“The state of our NASA is as strong as it’s ever been – and when I say ‘our,’ I really mean it,” Bolden told a gathering of agency employees at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Virginia. He used that “strong” assessment as a frequent refrain for the last “State of NASA” address of the Obama administration.

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