NASA moves Orion spacecraft to the Vehicle Assembly Building

Teams at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center moved the Orion spacecraft for the Artemis 1 moon mission into the Vehicle Assembly Building Tuesday for stacking on top of the Space Launch System.

The 67-foot-tall (20-meter) spacecraft, with its launch abort system tower attached, rolled into the iconic assembly building around 5 a.m. EDT (0900 GMT) Tuesday.

The Orion spacecraft rode a special transporter from the Launch Abort System Facility to the VAB. The 6-mile (10-kilometer) journey from the Kennedy Space Center’s industrial area took more than four hours.

Now inside the VAB, the spacecraft will be lifted by crane atop the SLS heavy-lift rocket later this week, capping off the stacking of the 322-foot-tall (98-meter) launch vehicle for the Artemis 1 mission scheduled to blast off early next year.

A crane will lift the Orion spacecraft out of High Bay 4, where it arrived early Tuesday, and across the width of the cavernous assembly building into High Bay 3, where the SLS is mounted on its mobile launch platform.

Artemis 1 is the first full-up unpiloted test flight of the SLS and Orion vehicles, paving the way for future crew missions to the moon.

The Orion spacecraft for the Artemis 1 mission arrived in the Launch Abort System Facility on July 10 after moving from the nearby Multi-Payload Processing Facility, where technicians filled the ship with hydrazine and nitrogen tetroxide propellants.

The highly toxic, but storable, propellants will feed the spacecraft’s main engine, a former orbital maneuvering system engine from the space shuttle program. The engine is mounted on the bottom of the spacecraft’s European-built service module, which itself is fixed under the pressurized Orion crew compartment.

With the spacecraft fueled for flight, teams at Kennedy installed Orion’s launch abort system over the summer. The final closeout work in recent weeks involved the installation of ogive panels around the circumference of the 16.5-foot (5-meter) diameter spacecraft.

The four ogive panels serve as an aerodynamic shield over the Orion crew capsule during the first few minutes of flight on top of the Space Launch System rocket.

NASA’s Orion spacecraft for the Artemis 1 mission is pictured inside the Launch Abort System Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credit: NASA

The fully fueled Orion spacecraft weighs about 74,000 pounds (33,500 kilograms), including the launch abort system, which was mounted on the capsule with its pre-packed solid propellant already loaded. The abort motor will not be active for the Artemis 1 mission, but the escape tower’s jettison motor will fire to propel the structure away from the Orion spacecraft after liftoff.

The Orion crew module was built by Lockheed Martin in a clean room facility at Kennedy Space Center, and the service module was manufactured by Airbus in Bremen, Germany. Northrop Grumman is prime contractor for the launch abort system.

Although no astronauts will fly on the Artemis 1 mission, NASA will fly an instrumented mannequin in the commander’s seat of the Orion spacecraft. The mannequin will be fitted with two radiation detectors, and will wear a spacesuit similar to the ones astronauts will use on future Artemis missions.

The seat will be equipped with sensors to measure vibration and acceleration throughout the flight.

The Artemis 1 mission will mark the second flight in space of an Orion capsule, following a test mission in 2014 in Earth orbit. The mission, called Exploration Flight Test 1, did not include an active service module. NASA and Lockheed Martin began developing the Orion spacecraft in 2006 under the Constellation moon program, which was canceled in 2010.

The Orion spacecraft survived the cancellation of the Constellation program. Artemis 1 will be the first flight of NASA’s Space Launch System, a heavy-lift rocket a decade in the making.

The Obama administration and Congress agreed to redirect NASA’s deep space exploration program in 2011 toward an eventual mission to Mars. The change saw the birth of the SLS program.

Under the Trump administration, the exploration program was re-focused on the moon and was renamed Artemis, the twin sister of Apollo in Greek mythology.

The Artemis 1 mission will send the Orion spacecraft on a voyage to orbit the moon. The flight will last at least three weeks — and possibly as long as six weeks — before the capsule returns to Earth for a splashdown in the Pacific Ocean.

If the mission goes well, NASA plans to launch the next Artemis mission — Artemis 2 — as soon as late 2023 with three NASA astronauts and one Canadian astronaut on-board. That flight will carry the crew around the far side of the moon and back to Earth.

During the swing behind the far side of the moon, the astronauts will reach distances farther than anyone has traveled from Earth, beating a record set on the Apollo 13 mission in 1970.

A third Artemis mission will link up with a SpaceX lunar lander near the moon. Astronauts will ride the SpaceX craft, based on the company’s Starship rocket system, to a landing near the moon’s south pole.

Future Artemis flights will conduct more moon landings, and visit a mini-space station named the Gateway that NASA intends to construct with international partners in lunar orbit.

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