February 5, 2023

After the Artemis I mission’s brilliant success, why is an encore 2 years away?

After the Artemis I mission’s brilliant success, why is an encore 2 years away?
After the Artemis I mission’s brilliant success, why is an encore 2 years away?After the Artemis I mission’s brilliant success, why is an encore 2 years away?
Enlarge / Orion, the Earth, and the Moon, captured during the Artemis I mission.

The launch of the Artemis I mission in mid-November was spectacular, and NASA’s Orion spacecraft has performed nearly flawlessly ever since. If all goes as anticipated—and there is no reason to believe it won’t—Orion will splash down in calm seas off the California coast this weekend.

This exploration mission has provided dazzling photos of Earth and the Moon and offered a promise that humans will soon fly in deep space again. So the question for NASA, then, is when can we expect an encore?

Realistically, a follow-up to Artemis I is probably at least two years away. Most likely, the Artemis II mission will not happen before early 2025, although NASA is not giving up hope on launching humans into deep space in 2024.

It may seem strange that there’s such a long gap. After all, with its flight in November, the Space Launch System rocket has now demonstrated its capability. And should Orion return to Earth safely, it will validate the calculations of engineers who designed and built its heat shield. Should it really take more than two years to finish building a second rocket and spacecraft and complete the certification of life support systems inside Orion?

The short answer is no, and the reason for the long gap is a bit absurd. It all goes back to a decision made about eight years ago to plug a $100 million budget hole in the Orion program. As a result of a chain of events that followed this decision, Artemis II is unlikely to fly before 2025 because of eight relatively small flight computers.

“I hate to say that it’s Orion this time holding us up,” said Mark Kirasich, who served as NASA’s program manager for Orion when the decision was made, in an interview. “But I’m bringing up the rear. And it’s part of my legacy.”

A long time ago, in a budget far away

About eight years ago, senior officials at NASA and Orion’s primary contractor, Lockheed Martin, needed to fill a budget hole. At the time, NASA was spending $1.2 billion per year developing the Orion spacecraft, and while it was making progress on the design, there were still challenges.

NASA’s exploration plans at the time were substantially different from the Artemis Program of today. Nominally, the agency was building Orion and the SLS rocket as part of a “Journey to Mars.” But there was no clear-cut plan on how to get there and no well-defined missions for Orion to fly.

One key difference is that NASA only planned to fly the original version of the SLS rocket, known as “Block 1,” a single time. After this initial mission, the agency planned to upgrade the rocket’s upper stage, making a version of the rocket known as “Block 1B.” Because this variant was taller and more powerful than Block 1, it required significant modifications to the rocket’s launch tower. NASA engineers estimated that it would take nearly three years of work after the initial SLS launch to complete and test the reconstructed tower.

The launch of Artemis I was a tremendous success for NASA.
Enlarge / The launch of Artemis I was a tremendous success for NASA.

So it seemed plausible that the Orion planners could reuse some components from the first flight of their spacecraft on the second one. In particular, they focused on a suite of two dozen avionics “boxes” that are part of the electronics system that operates Orion’s communications, navigations, display, and flight control systems. They estimated it would take about two years to re-certify the flight hardware.

By not needing to build two dozen avionics boxes for the second flight of Orion, the program closed the $100 million budget hole. And schedule-wise, they would have nearly a year to spare while work was being done on the launch tower.

“It was simply a budget decision,” Kirasich said. “The launch dates were completely different at the time.”