Stacking of Orion spacecraft caps assembly of first Artemis moon rocket

The Orion spacecraft for the Artemis 1 mission is lowered on top of its Space Launch System rocket Oct. 20 inside High Bay 3 of the Vehicle Assembly Building. Credit: NASA/Frank Michaux

Technicians at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center worked overnight Wednesday to tighten 360 bolts connecting the Orion spacecraft for the Artemis 1 moon mission to the first Space Launch System heavy-lift rocket, hours after a crane hoisted the deep space capsule atop the booster inside the Vehicle Assembly Building.

The 74,000-pound (33.5-metric ton) Orion spacecraft arrived in the Vehicle Assembly Building early Tuesday after a 6-mile (10-kilometer) journey from the facility where technicians installed the capsule’s launch abort system.

Early Wednesday, a crane lifted the spacecraft off the floor of the iconic assembly building and raised it over the transom into the northeast high bay. The crane carefully lowed the craft on top of the Space Launch System rocket, which stands on its mobile launch platform.

Cliff Lanham, NASA’s Artemis 1 flow director, said late Wednesday that the Orion spacecraft was “soft mated” to the rocket with an initial set of five bolts in each quadrant. The spacecraft sits on top of the Orion Stage Adapter, the uppermost element of the Space Launch System that sits atop the rocket’s cryogenic upper stage.

“We got into a position where we got the vehicle soft mated to the Orion Stage Adapter, and currently we’re in the process of completing the hard mate … which includes the final installation of 360 bolts,” Lanham said in an interview with Spaceflight Now.

That process should be completed by late Thursday, Lanham said.

“It’s a spectacular sight to see a fully-stacked rocket, or a mostly stacked rocket,” Lanham said. “I want to be careful there and make sure we get those final bolts torqued. But it’s an incredible sight. It’s huge.”

A moon-bound rocket hasn’t been fully stacked inside the Vehicle Assembly Building since the Saturn 5 rocket rolled out for the Apollo 17 mission in 1972, the final lunar landing mission in NASA’s Apollo program.

The Space Launch System and Orion spacecraft stand 322 feet (98 meters) tall, just shy of the height of the Apollo-era Saturn 5 moon rocket. The launcher’s core stage and solid rocket boosters will combine to generate 8.8 million pounds of thrust at liftoff, exceeding the power produced by the Saturn 5 and the space shuttle.

Artemis 1 dress rehearsal scheduled for late December, launch in early 2022

Once the Orion spacecraft is firmly bolted to the rocket, technicians from NASA and its ground systems contractor Jacobs will re-attach the umbilical arms between the mobile launch platform and the Space Launch System. The swing arms retracted from the rocket during a test last month, a key check of the system’s ability to release from the rocket at liftoff.

Teams are completing the umbilical arm work in parallel with bolting down the Orion spacecraft, Lanham said. One of the umbilicals will hook up to the Orion service module, allowing NASA to begin a power-up test of the spacecraft this weekend.

The power-up of Orion will include battery charging and avionics health checks to verify the spacecraft’s status after moving across Kennedy Space Center to the VAB early Tuesday.

Once the umbilical arms are re-connected, ground teams will kick off a series of Interface Verification Tests, or IVTs. Those checkouts will ensure all the elements of the Space Launch System and Orion spacecraft can communicate with each other.

“We’ll do individual interface verification tests for Orion, then we’ll do one of the core stage and boosters, and then we’ll do one of the ICPS (the upper stage), and all that will culminate in a full-up integrated vehicle IVT,” Lanham said. “Basically, you’re building yourself up to that point where you check and make sure everybody can communicate with everybody else on the vehicle.”

The Orion spacecraft, with its shuttle-era main engine visible, is lifted inside the Vehicle Assembly Building. Credit: NASA/Frank Michaux

NASA also plans an end-to-end communications test with the SLS and Orion spacecraft. That test will demonstrate that signals can travel between the SLS, Orion, and NASA’s Launch Control Center at Kennedy, Orion mission control at Johnson Space Center in Houston, and other NASA centers around the country through the agency’s network of ground tracking stations.

Those tests lead toward the first rollout of the Space Launch System to pad 39B at Kennedy for a practice countdown and fueling test, called a Wet Dress Rehearsal, when NASA’s launch team will load cryogenic liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen into the rocket.

After draining the propellants, the Space Launch System will roll back to the Vehicle Assembly Building for final outfitting for flight. Those final steps in the VAB will include connection of pyrotechnic ordnance, which is used in separation mechanisms and in the rocket’s range safety destruct system.

The Wet Dress Rehearsal is currently scheduled for the “later part of December,” Lanham said. “But we’re going to do it when we’re ready, I’ll tell you that. And we’ll see when that occurs,” Lanham said.

NASA has not publicly announced a target launch date for the Artemis 1 mission, but with the practice countdown penciled in for late December, there’s no chance for the rocket to blast off until early 2022.

Orion stacking on Space Launch System marks major milestone for NASA

The Orion spacecraft’s connection to the SLS rocket is a significant achievement for NASA’s lunar exploration program, which will rely on the crew capsule and launch vehicle to ferry astronauts back to the moon.

The first mission in NASA’s Artemis moon program, known as Artemis 1, will be the second trip to space for an Orion spacecraft, and the first test flight of the Space Launch System.

Artemis 1 will not carry any astronauts, but if the test flight goes well, NASA plans to assign three U.S. astronauts and a Canadian space flier to the Artemis 2 mission, set for blastoff in late 2023 on a journey around the moon and back to Earth.

Future Artemis missions will rendezvous with commercial lunar landers pre-positioned in the vicinity of the moon. NASA awarded SpaceX a contract in April to build the the first Artemis human-rated moon lander, based on the company’s Starship rocket system.

NASA and its international partners also plan to construct a mini-space station in orbit around the moon. In NASA’s architecture, that deep space complex, called the Gateway, will serve as a waypoint for astronauts traveling between Earth and the moon.

The 74,000-pound Orion spacecraft is lifted inside the Vehicle Assembly Building. Credit: NASA

The Artemis 1 mission follows Exploration Flight Test 1, the first Orion test mission into Earth orbit. That flight 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, and NASA announced an agreement with the European Space Agency in 2013 for Airbus to manufacture service modules for Orion missions.

The service module contains the Orion spacecraft’s power generation system, including solar arrays, cooling radiators, propellant tanks, and main engine.

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. At that time, NASA hoped to launch the first SLS test flight in 2017.

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.

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