NASA managers were excited about the first results of the lunar mission

NASA’s unpiloted Orion moonship glides smoothly to remote lunar orbit after a spectacular flyby at low altitude Monday, operating in near-flawless fashion, mission managers reported Monday, outperforming expectations on a flight to pave the way for the first pilot mission in 2024.

An analysis of the massive Space Launch System rocket that strengthened the Orion capsule en route early Wednesday showed it performed almost exactly as expected, rising atop 8.8 million pounds of thrust and producing a jarring shock wave that literally blew the doors off the launch pad elevators.

The space shuttle’s four upgraded main engines and twin solid-fuel boosters propelled the 100-foot rocket out of the atmosphere and into space almost exactly as planned. At main engine shutdown, the SLS was within 3 miles of its target altitude and within 5 mph of the predicted speed.

A wonderful

A wonderful

“When you think about the size of the system we have and how much performance it has when the engines are running at full throttle… the engine shutdown in the core phase was missed by two meters per second, which is just remarkable,” said Artemis. 1 Mission Manager Mike Sarafin.

The rocket’s upper stage provided a smooth boost from Earth orbit and sent the Orion spacecraft on its way to the moon.

“The vehicle continues to run exceptionally. We’ve seen really good performance across the board on all of our subsystems and systems, and we’re certainly very pleased with the performance,” said Orion program manager Howard Hu. “Today was a great day.”

He had reason to be pleased. Early Monday, the capsule reached its target, using its main engine to mount a low-altitude flyby that brought the spacecraft within about 80 miles of the lunar surface.

Earth sets on the lunar horizon as the Orion spacecraft loses contact over the far side of the moon.  / Credit: NASA

Earth sets on the lunar horizon as the Orion spacecraft loses contact over the far side of the moon. / Credit: NASA

Cameras mounted on the ends of the spacecraft’s solar arrays captured stunning images of Earth, which looked like a blue-and-white marble in the deep black of space, slowly setting on the lunar horizon as the spacecraft passed over the other side. sailed from the moon and no contact with flight controllers.

Using the moon’s gravity to throw it back into deep space, the Orion sailed directly over Apollo 11’s landing site in the Sea of ​​​​Tranquility before taking off for the intended “distant retrograde orbit” that would launch it. farther from Earth than any previous human-rated spacecraft.

“In terms of overall system failures, we didn’t see anything on the rocket or on the spacecraft that would have us questioning our reliability or our redundancy. So this has largely been a nominal mission,” Sarafin said. .

“There have been some things where our plans and our predictions didn’t quite line up with what we thought from an engineering and modeling standpoint…but overall it was largely a green light flight.”

The Space Launch System rocket is the most powerful rocket in the world, generating 8.8 million pounds of thrust and a launch blast that literally blew the doors off launch pad elevators.  NASA managers said overall damage to the pad was minor and will be repaired in plenty of time for the next SLS launch in 2024 / Credit: NASA

The Space Launch System rocket is the most powerful rocket in the world, generating 8.8 million pounds of thrust and a launch blast that literally blew the doors off launch pad elevators. NASA managers said overall damage to the pad was minor and will be repaired in plenty of time for the next SLS launch in 2024 / Credit: NASA

That said, engineers struggle with two relatively minor glitches: Engineers must periodically reboot the capsule’s star-tracker’s navigation sensors after unexpected automatic resets; and a problem with a component of an electrical power distribution system. Neither is expected to affect the mission.

Looking ahead, the Orion must perform one more critical engine on Friday to actually enter its planned distant retrograde orbit, then perform a third burn on Dec. 1 to escape from that trajectory. A fourth engine firing on Dec. 5 is needed to mount another close lunar flight.

That burn, the “return powered flyby” maneuver, will hurl Orion back toward Earth for a swift reentry and splash into the Pacific Ocean west of San Diego on Dec. 11.

When asked how he felt about the mission given its smooth, relatively trouble-free start, Sarafin said, “We’re on flight day six of a 26-day mission, so I’d give it a cautiously optimistic A-plus.” But he was quick to add: “We are taking it very seriously. I will have a good rest on December 11, after landing and recovery are complete.”

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