Successful end of NASA moon mission shifts attention to SpaceX
By Kenneth Chang
Suspended under parachutes, an astronaut capsule without astronauts made a gentle splash in the Pacific Ocean on Sunday, bringing NASA’s Artemis I moon mission to a close.
The end of the uncrewed test flight coincided with the 50th anniversary of the landing of Apollo 17 on the moon, the last time that NASA astronauts walked there.
The Artemis program is the successor to Apollo, and after years of delays and a mounting price tag, the new rocket and spacecraft that will take astronauts back to the moon worked about as smoothly as mission managers could have hoped.
“This was a challenging mission,” Mike Sarafin, the Artemis mission manager, said during a news conference after the splashdown. “And this is what mission success looks like.”
The moon trip capped a year of spectacular successes for NASA. Its James Webb Space Telescope, which launched almost a year ago, began sending back breathtaking images of the cosmos this summer. Its DART mission showed in September that slamming into an asteroid on purpose could protect Earth in the future if a deadly space rock is discovered on a collision course with our planet.
With the conclusion of Artemis I, more attention will shift toward SpaceX, the private rocket company founded by Elon Musk. NASA is relying on a version of Starship, the company’s next-generation spacecraft that has not yet flown to space, to land astronauts on the moon.
On Sunday, just after noon Eastern time, the Orion crew capsule — where astronauts will sit during future flights — reentered the Earth’s atmosphere at 24,500 mph. This was the mission’s last major objective: to demonstrate that the capsule’s heat shield could withstand the temperatures up to 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit.
By design, the capsule bounced off the upper layer of air before reentering a second time. It was the first time that a capsule designed for astronauts had performed this maneuver, known as a skip-entry, which enables more precise steering toward the landing site. As expected, there were two blackouts in communications as the heat from the capsule’s encounter with the atmosphere created electrically charged gases that blocked the radio signals.
Before and after the blackouts, live video from outside Orion’s window showed impressive views of Earth getting larger and larger.
At 12:40 p.m. Eastern, the capsule settled in the Pacific Ocean off Mexico’s Baja peninsula. Recovery crews aboard the USS Portland experienced brisk winds and choppy seas with waves 4 to 5 feet high.
Over the next few hours, recovery crews worked to pull Orion out of the water. It will head back to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida for detailed inspection.
The capsule and the Space Launch System, a giant new rocket, are key pieces of Artemis, which aims to land astronauts on the moon near its south pole as early as 2025.
During the 26 days of Artemis I, glitches popped up as expected, but the flight appeared to be devoid of major malfunctions that would require a lengthy investigation and redesign.
“It’s a great demonstration that this stuff works,” said Daniel L. Dumbacher, the executive director of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. Dumbacher oversaw early work on the Space Launch System more than a decade ago when he was a top human spaceflight official at NASA.
While the mission was years behind schedule and billions of dollars over budget, the flight provided some validation of the traditional government-run approach that NASA took for the development of the complex space hardware.
“From my standpoint, it certainly measures up to the expectations, if not more,” said Jeff Bingham, a former senior Republican aide on the Senate subcommittee that shaped legislation in 2010 directing NASA to build the Space Launch System. “I feel good about the fact that what we intended is coming to fruition.”
Even Lori Garver, a former deputy administrator of NASA who favored turning to private companies to come up with more innovative rocket designs that might have been built faster and cheaper, acknowledged that the Artemis I flight went smoothly.
“It’s fantastic that it is working,” she said. “It’s a huge relief, and excitement, at NASA.”
The space agency now appears to be in good shape to launch the next mission, Artemis II, as planned in 2024. That flight will send four astronauts to the moon, without landing, and then back to Earth.
Vanessa Wyche, director of the Johnson Space Center, said NASA planned to name the crew members for Artemis II early next year.
The moon landing is planned for the third Artemis mission, in which the Space Launch System and Orion will ferry four astronauts to a large looping orbit around the moon. That task will not require capabilities beyond those demonstrated during Artemis I and Artemis II.
Manufacturing the hardware for those missions is already well underway. The Orion capsule for Artemis II is already half built at the Kennedy Space Center. The service module for Orion, built by Airbus as part of the European Space Agency’s contributions to the moon missions, was delivered last year. This weekend, the bottom section for the rocket that will launch Artemis III arrived at Kennedy for installation of the engines.
“This isn’t just a one-flight-and-we’re-done,” said Jim Free, associate administrator of NASA’s exploration systems development directorate.
But Artemis III will hinge on a third requisite piece: a lander built by SpaceX. And for that part of the mission, Musk’s company will have to pull off a series of technological marvels that have never been achieved before.
“I think all eyes do start turning to the lander at some point,” said Garver, whose work during the Obama administration helped lay the foundation for SpaceX’s current program of taking astronauts to the International Space Station.
NASA awarded SpaceX a $2.9 billion contract in 2021 to develop and build the lunar lander, which is a variation of the giant Starship rocket, for Artemis III.