Artemis I Launch Targeted for Late March, First Return to the Moon in 2025

Artemis I Launch Targeted for Late March, First Return to the Moon in 2025

NASA is targeting the end of March for Artemis I, the first launch of the Space Launch System rocket with an uncrewed Orion spacecraft. The actual date is yet to be determined, but the agency is confident enough to open the process for media to apply to cover the launch at Kennedy Space Center. The agency official in charge of the initiative also laid out a tentative schedule for future Artemis missions showing the U.S. human return to the Moon in 2025.

Jim Free, NASA Associate Administrator, Exploration Systems Development Mission Directorate. Photo Credit: NASA/Joel Kowsky

Jim Free, recently appointed as the head of the new Exploration Systems Development Mission Directorate (ESDMD), told a NASA advisory committee today that getting Artemis I ready for flight continues to experience challenges, but he is targeting the end of March. The launch can take place during specific windows when the Earth and Moon are properly aligned. One window ends on March 27, the next opens April 8.

Today NASA opened the credentialing process for media who want to be at Kennedy Space Center to witness the launch. That is hardly a guarantee it will take place at that time, but suggests some level of optimism that the date is near.

SLS has been delayed again and again. In 2014, NASA committed  to the first launch in November 2018. That slipped to December 2019-June 2020, then to mid-late 2021.  NASA then said November 2021, but that has slipped until March 2022, a “no earlier than” date in NASA parlance.

Four months ago NASA reorganized its headquarters management structure for the human spaceflight program, splitting the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate (HEOMD) in two. Kathy Lueders, who headed HEOMD, now is in charge of the Space Operations Mission Directorate, which is focused primarily on the International Space Station program and commercial space stations to succeed it. Free runs ESDMD, which oversees development of SLS, Orion and other systems needed to return humans to the Moon.

Last year when she still headed the combined operation, Lueders shared updated cost estimates for SLS and its associated Exploration Ground Systems: $9.1 billion and $2.4 billion respectively, approximately 30 percent increases each compared to NASA’s original commitment. That cost estimate is only through the first launch and assumed that launch would take place in November 2021.

Boeing is the prime contractor for SLS. Costs for the Orion spacecraft are separate. Lockheed Martin is the Orion prime contractor.

No one will be aboard the first SLS/Orion flight. The first crew will be on Artemis II, now expected in 2024. Artemis III will be the mission to return astronauts to the surface of the Moon. The Trump Administration set 2024 for that milestone and the Biden Administration initially adopted it, but NASA Administrator Bill Nelson conceded in November that is not possible and they are targeting 2025.

Free laid out the current schedule, or manifest, for the first five Artemis flights today for the NASA Advisory Council’s Human Exploration and Operations committee (NAC/HEO).

Presentation by Jim Free, NASA Associate Administrator for Exploration Systems Development Mission Directorate to the NASA Advisory Council Human Exploration and Operations Committee, January 18, 2022.

He stressed the dates are “evolving” and he is cautioning colleagues to “be realistic.” Artemis III will require not only the new Human Landing System (HLS), but spacesuits for the astronauts to wear on the lunar surface that first must be tested on the International Space Station. NASA awarded the HLS contract to SpaceX last April, but unsuccessful protests by the losing bidders to the Government Accountability Office (GAO) and then in federal court cost seven months of time.

Artemis IV will be a flight to the small Gateway space station NASA plans to put into orbit around the Moon and requires the upgraded SLS Exploration Upper Stage (EUS), Block IB, still in development along with the mobile launch platform needed to get it out to the launch pad. Artemis V is so complicated it will “make your head hurt.”

More details on the Artemis initative are expected tomorrow as the NAC/HEO meeting continues. The initative is named after the Greek goddess of the Moon and twin sister of Apollo.

The House Science, Space, and Technology Committee also is holding a hearing on Artemis on Thursday. Free will testify there along with representatives of GAO and the NASA Inspector General’s office, the chair of NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP) that just urged NASA to think carefully about its future role in human spaceflight, and the Executive Director of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics who is a former NASA Deputy Associate Administrator for Exploration Systems Development.

Although Artemis is often referred to as a “program,” the ASAP report pointed out it actually is a set of programs, each with their own directors, rather than an integrated effort. NAC/HEO chair Wayne Hale, a former NASA flight director and space shuttle program manager, seemed to concur, saying that one of his main concerns right now is “systems integration, systems integration, systems integration.”

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