Moon Monday #81: Lunar missions on the verge of launching and future hardware coming to life

There has been a plethora of updates last week as well as last month on upcoming lunar missions so today’s Moon Monday is presented a bit differently—developments are grouped by type. Despite some more mission delays, seeing so many spacecraft on the verge of launching and so much future mission hardware coming together, piece by piece, is exciting!

Upcoming Moon missions

Artist’s impression showing NASA’s VIPER rover moving down a ramp of Astrobotic’s Griffin lunar lander. Credit: Astrobotic

Future Moon mission hardware coming to life

  • NASA is completing assembly of the SLS rocket’s core stage to be used for the Artemis II mission to carry crew around the Moon in 2024. In the meanwhile, the mission’s nearly fully assembled Orion spacecraft, which the astronauts will be in, was powered on for the first time last month. Its systems will be extensively tested over the next few months chiefly to make sure its flight computers and components are communicating as expected.

  • NASA completed manufacturing the 10 motor segments of the SLS rocket boosters to be used during launch of the Artemis III crewed landing mission. The booster segments will next be integrated with the avionics and the remaining booster hardware. In parallel, the mission’s second rocket stage is taking shape in ULA’s factory.

  • NASA is nicely progressing through a test campaign of 6-and-12-kilowatt solar-electric propulsion developmental engines, whose flight versions will maneuver the NASA-led international Gateway station to and in lunar orbit after launch in 2024. The tests are designed to demonstrate that Gateway’s propulsion system should work for at least 15 years around the Moon.

  • Airbus has completed building the structure of the fourth European Service Module that will power the Orion spacecraft on NASA’s Artemis IV mission. The company will complete the module’s integration and conduct related tests over the next few months. The 15,000-kilogram module provides propulsion, water, oxygen, thermal control, and electrical power to Orion.

    • Artemis IV, launching no earlier than 2027, will not attempt a lunar landing but instead advance the Gateway’s assembly, which by that point would be in its unique lunar orbit. Specifically, Artemis IV will deliver the ESA- and JAXA-developed International Habitation module (i-HAB) to the Gateway. Artemis IV will not only be the first mission to send astronauts to the Gateway but also be the first flight of the SLS rocket’s Block 1B version with an upgraded upper stage.

  • NASA and Northrop Grumman continue testing subscale versions of a new solid rocket motor design to be used for the more capable boosters debuting on Artemis IX on a SLS Block 2 evolved rocket sometime in the 2030s. The Orion spacecraft on top of SLS will feature an upgraded main engine for the second time during Artemis IX instead of its current Shuttle-era one.

    • If you’re wondering that “..if the big orange rocket must exist by law anyway, at least these upgrades should’ve been in place since the very first Artemis mission..”, then you aren’t alone. But better late than never I guess. More importantly though, this update also means NASA is keen on keeping the momentum for our return to the Moon alive, something crucial in its own right considering past failed efforts.

Left: Structure of the fourth European Service Module for NASA’s Orion spacecraft. Top right: Testing of a Hall effect thruster to be part of the Gateway lunar station’s propulsion system. Bottom right: Hot fire test of a subscale model of an upgraded solid rocket booster to be used on NASA’s SLS Block 2 rocket. Credits: NASA, Thales Alenia, Samuel Lott

The launch tower that’s still an artist’s render

In a scathing new report, NASA’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) painfully details the poor progress on the 118-meter Mobile Launcher 2 to be made for the SLS rocket’s Block 1B and Block 2 configurations. The OIG points out that the launch tower’s cost-plus contract NASA originally awarded to Bechtel at $383 million in 2019 has ballooned to $960 million primarily because Bechtel underestimated the project’s scope and complexity. The cost will likely rise further during the construction phase, which hasn’t even begun because the design work is pending! The OIG also blames NASA for Bechtel’s shortcomings because the agency awarded the contract before the specifications of the SLS rocket’s upgraded upper stage were finalized.

The OIG estimates that the Mobile Launcher 2 will be built no earlier than November 2026, after which it will need to tested, meaning Artemis IV has a very slim chance of actually taking off in 2027 on a SLS Block 1B rocket. NASA is considering converting parts of the contract from cost-plus to fixed-price to accelerate progress though there may not be enough room for significant improvements.

Thanks to Open Lunar Foundation, The Orbital Index and Epsilon3 for sponsoring this week’s Moon Monday.

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