NASA Targets February 2022 for First Artemis Launch

NASA Targets February 2022 for First Artemis Launch

NASA is targeting a two-week window in February 2022 for Artemis I, the uncrewed test flight of the Space Launch System and Orion spacecraft. A lot of work remains to be done, including a dress rehearsal planned for January, so the timeframe is tentative, but the announcement is a sign that the long-awaited launch is drawing near. Artemis I is the first step in NASA’s effort to return American astronauts to the lunar surface five decades after the last Apollo crew departed.

NASA completed stacking the various components of the SLS/Orion system at Kennedy Space Center, FL on Thursday. The Orion spacecraft with its launch abort tower was the crowning piece.

Components of the Space Launch System (SLS) with an Orion spacecraft. Credit: NASA

At a media briefing on October 22, officials said the 322-foot tall stack will be rolled out to the launch pad for a Wet Dress Rehearsal in January. The tanks will be fueled and a countdown conducted just as it would be for an actual launch, but the ignition command will not be sent. If that goes well, launch will be set for sometime in the February 12-27, 2022 time period.

The first opportunity is February 12 at 5:56 pm ET, with a 21-minute launch window.

If needed, the next chances are March 12-27 and April 8-23.

No astronauts will be aboard this test flight, but an instrumented mannequin — a “Moonikin” — will make the trip and 10 cubesats will be deployed from the SLS rocket.

The mission will last either four or six weeks.  NASA wants to time it so both the launch and the splashdown of the Orion spacecraft in the Pacific Ocean will happen during daylight hours. The duration depends on the relative positions of the Earth and Moon to meet those conditions on launch day. During the February timeframe, the opportunities are about evenly split between the two options.

Space Launch System (SLS) for Artemis I mission fully stacked in the Vehicle Assembly Bulding, Kennedy Space Center, FL. The Orion spacecraft with its Launch Abort System is at the top. Credit: NASA

If launch is indeed in February, it will be three years and three months late. In 2014, NASA committed to the first launch in November 2018. That slipped to December 2019-June 2020, then to mid-late 2021. Until these past few weeks, NASA officials were insisting it would happen before the end of 2021 even though it seemed unlikely after the Green Run engine test had to be repeated earlier this year.

In August 2020, NASA estimated the development cost for SLS and its associated Exploration Ground Systems at $9.1 billion and $2.4 billion, respectively, if launch was in November 2021. That was a 30 percent overrun for each. That is development costs only, not earlier formulation costs or anything after Artemis I.

Orion also is not included in that figure. It has been in development since 2006 when it was part of President George W. Bush’s Constellation program to put astronauts back on the Moon by 2020. President Obama cancelled Constellation and wanted to kill both Orion and the Ares rocket under development at that time. In the 2010 NASA Authorization Act, however, Congress insisted NASA build a new Saturn-V class rocket — replacing Ares with SLS — and a crew spacecraft to go with it. NASA retained Orion as the spacecraft.

The schedule for future Artemis flights is uncertain. Artemis II will be the first to carry a crew, but is not expected until 2023.  Speaking at the American Astronautical Society’s Von Braun Symposium on October 13, Jim Free, NASA Associate Administrator for Exploration Systems Development, said there is an “iron bar” of 20-21 months between Artemis I and II because they are reusing avionics from the first for the second.

Artemis III will put astronauts back on the Moon. NASA has been aiming for achieving that by the end of 2024, but many have been skeptical about that schedule since it was first set by the Trump Administration in 2019. President Biden embraced it when he took office, but the chances have only diminshed.

Not only has Artemis I slipped from November 2021 to February 2022, at best, and questions remain about whether lunar spacesuits will be ready by then, but work on the Human Landing System (HLS) is paused.

Illustration of SpaceX’s Human Landing System. Credit: SpaceX

SLS/Orion will get astronauts only as far as lunar orbit. HLS is needed to take astronauts down to and back from the surface. NASA awarded an HLS contract to SpaceX in April, but Blue Origin argues it also should have gotten one. After losing its protest to the Government Accountability Office (GAO), Blue Origin filed suit in federal court. A ruling is expected in early November, but whatever the outcome months have been lost already and more could be if NASA must start over.

Getting Artemis I off the launch pad will be a major milestone, however, and everyone is anxiously awaiting liftoff.

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