NASA Readies for Orion’s Return

NASA Readies for Orion’s Return

NASA is getting ready for the return of the Orion spacecraft from its trip around the Moon. Splashdown in the Pacific will take place at 12:39 pm ET tomorrow, December 11. The mission has been going almost perfectly since launch early on November 16, but the “priority one objective” is testing the spacecraft’s heatshield and that won’t happen until the last minutes of the flight.

Orion is completing the Artemis I mission — an uncrewed test flight of the Space Launch System rocket and Orion crew spacecraft that will take astronauts back to the Moon for the first time since the Apollo program.

NASA astronaut Harrison “Jack” Schmitt stands near the Apollo 17 Lunar Module next to the American flag on the lunar surface, December 13, 1972. Credit: NASA

The Artemis I launch was delayed several times so it is only by coincidence that Orion’s return tomorrow will take place exactly 50 years to the day that the last lunar Apollo crew, Apollo 17, set down on the Moon.

Apollo 17 Commander Gene Cernan and Lunar Module Pilot Harrison “Jack” Schmitt landed at 7:54:57 pm on December 11, 1972 while Command Module Pilot Ron Evans orbited overhead. Evans passed away in 1990 and Cernan in 2017, but Schmitt is still very active in space activities. He will participate in an Apollo 17 anniversary event at the National Academy of Sciences on December 14 that will be livestreamed.

Five decades later, NASA is on the path to return astronauts to the Moon, though not for at least three years. A crewed test flight around the Moon, Artemis II, is planned for 2024, with Artemis III putting two astronauts on the surface in late 2025.

At least one of them will be a woman. NASA chose the name Artemis for this program because she was Apollo’s twin sister in Greek mythology. It is part of NASA’s message that this time landing on the Moon won’t be limited only to white males, but women and people of color will be there too. It vows a woman will be on the first Artemis landing.

But first Artemis I has to complete its mission and demonstrate that the heat shield can withstand reentry through the Earth’s atmosphere. Artemis Mission Manager Mike Sarafin told reporters on Thursday there is no facility on Earth to duplicate the environment Orion will encounter on the way in. Lockheed Martin is Orion’s prime contractor and the only way to test its new heat shield design is to fly it.

“It is our priority one objective and it is our priority one objective for a reason. There is no arc jet or aerothermal facility here on Earth capable of replicating hypersonic reentry with a heat shield of this size, and it is a brand new heat shield design, this [Lockheed Martin] AVCOAT design, and it is a safety critical piece of equipment. It is designed to protect the spacecraft and the passengers, the astronauts, onboard, so the heat shield needs to work. We can buy down some of that risk on the ground, but in terms of coming back at Mach 32 … approaching temperatures of 5000 degrees Fahrenheit for as long as we need in order bring [down] a 20,000 pound spacecraft with astronauts onboard is not something we can do on the ground.”

NASA is testing not only the spacecraft, but a new “skip entry” technique where Orion will start down through the atmosphere but lift up again before its final descent under parachutes. NASA says it offers a more precise landing closer to the West Coast than was possible during Apollo.

Screengrab from  NASA TV.
Screengrab from NASA TV.

Orion fired its main engine on December 5 putting it on the path home. Since then its route has been set except for some minor tweaks and the skip entry technique also provides a bit of flexibility on the precise point where it will splash down.

The weather forecast for both primary and backup landing sites is poor, so NASA is using an alternate site 300 nautical miles (345 statute miles or 555 kilometers) south of where it originally planned. Sarafin declined to provide the exact coordinates, but it is near Guadalupe Island off the coast of the Baja Peninsula.

Screengrab from NASA TV.

As with Apollo, the U.S. Navy will recover the spacecraft. NASA wants to do tests and thoroughly examine the spacecraft while it’s still in the water, so it will be about two hours before it’s brought aboard the USS Portland.

No people are aboard this flight, but three instrumented manikins (mannequins used for scientific purposes) and several other science experiments are, as well as a Snoopy doll and Shaun the Sheep, a beloved European children’s character. The European Space Agency provided the Service Module for Orion as part of a NASA-ESA agreement associated with their partnership on the International Space Station. The Service Module will separate from the Crew Module just before reentry and burn up in the atmosphere.

NASA TV coverage of splashdown begins at 11:00 am ET Sunday. A press conference is scheduled for about 3:30 pm ET.

The USS Portland will bring Orion back to San Diego on December 12 and it will be off-loaded on December 14.

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