Test Orion Spacecraft Completes First Lunar Flyby

After making the first launch of the SLS in several years with Artemis I on November 16, NASA announced that its Orion spacecraft made its first lunar flyby on November 21, 2022. Orion came as close as 81 miles above the lunar surface.

After the flyby, Orion made a planned burn of its orbital maneuvering system engine. This outbound powered flyby burn is the first of two maneuvers that will put the Orion spacecraft in a Distant Retrograde Orbit (DRO) around the Moon.

The Distant Retrograde Orbit provides a stable orbit that requires a minimum of fuel to maintain. This is useful for maintaining a long-duration mission. NASA’s mission planners initially said Orion will spend 6 to 19 days in DRO while engineers and mission controllers test its systems.

NASA had to modify the length of time that Orion will spend in space due to multiple launch delays caused by faulty rocket engines and hurricanes. Now it will spend 26 days in space, most of which will be spent orbiting the Moon.

Once it made its burn, Orion reestablished contact with the Deep Space Network, a series of three stations spaced at 120-degree intervals around Earth. The stations reside in Goldstone, California, Madrid, Spain, and Canberra, Australia.

The Jet Propulsion Laboratory manages the Deep Space Network for NASA and frequently uses it for radio communications with interplanetary probes. The Deep Space Network even picks up radio signals from the Voyager probes, which became the first probes from Earth to cross into interstellar space.

Future Artemis missions will depend on Artemis I’s success. Engineers already say that Orion is performing better than expected. If all goes as planned, Artemis III could land two astronauts on the Moon as early as 2025.

Artemis Program might be in trouble long-term, but could be fixed.

The Artemis Program has unfortunately run years behind schedule and billions of dollars over budget. NASA’s Inspector General warns that the program is unsustainable. According to the Inspector General, NASA will likely spend $93 billion on it by the time it actually returns to flying astronauts to the Moon.

The space agency has taken a few steps to solve the issue of cost overruns. NASA piloted the idea of fixed-cost contracts with programs like Commercial Crew, which attempts to encourage contractors to keep costs under control by setting a fixed dollar figure per flight. If contractors go over that amount, they have to eat the extra cost.

Naturally, some newer contractors like SpaceX have had better luck with this approach because they didn’t have to fight with a company culture that was too used to a “cost-plus” model. They found ways to keep costs down and stay on track – mostly.

Elon Musk occasionally butted heads with the FAA over bureaucratic delays in approving planned SpaceX activities like a planned orbital test of its Starship spacecraft.

SpaceX has a contract with NASA to develop a Starship-derived lunar lander for the Artemis Program that it and NASA had to go through a legal battle with competitor Blue Origin over. Congress had floated the idea of adding more money to NASA’s budget so two competing proposals could remain in the running. However, that idea came too late.

Just following the regulatory hurdles and feuds between competitors with regulators and judges often serving as referees, it’s easy to get the impression that figuring out the technical details of sending stuff to their destinations in space is the easy part.

Just getting Orion as far as lunar orbit is a good start, though. Engineers say that it’s performing better than expected. If everything goes as planned – and it would be easy to be pessimistic and expect more delays and cost overruns – humans could walk on the Moon again as early as 2025.

P.S., Happy Thanksgiving, everybody.