The launch of the Artemis I mission in mid-November was spectacular, and NASA’s Orion spacecraft has performed almost flawlessly ever since. If all goes according to plan – and there’s no reason to believe it won’t – Orion will run aground in calm seas off the California coast this weekend.
This exploration mission provided dazzling photos of Earth and the Moon and offered the promise that humans will soon be flying in deep space again. So the question for NASA, then, is when can we expect a booster?
Realistically, a follow-up to Artemis I is probably at least two years away. Most likely, the Artemis II mission won’t take place until early 2025, although NASA isn’t despairing of launching humans into deep space in 2024.
It may seem strange that there is such a long gap. After all, with its flight in November, the Space Launch System rocket has now demonstrated its capability. And if Orion returns to Earth safely, it will validate the calculations of the engineers who designed and built its heat shield. Should it really take more than two years to complete the construction of a second rocket and a second spacecraft and to 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 following this decision, Artemis II is unlikely to fly before 2025 due to eight relatively small flight computers.
“I hate to say it’s Orion this time that’s holding us back,” Mark Kirasich, who was NASA’s Orion program manager when the decision was made, said in an interview. “But I’m bringing up the rear. And that’s part of my heritage.”
A long time ago, in a distant budget
About eight years ago, senior NASA officials and Orion prime contractor Lockheed Martin needed to plug a budget hole. At the time, NASA was spending $1.2 billion a year to develop the Orion spacecraft, and while it was making progress on the design, there were still challenges.
NASA’s exploration plans at the time were significantly different from today’s Artemis program. Nominally, the agency was building Orion and the SLS rocket as part of a “Journey to Mars”. But there was no clear plan on how to get there and no well-defined missions for Orion to fly.
A key difference is that NASA had only planned to fly the original version of the SLS rocket, known as “Block 1”, once. After this initial mission, the agency planned to upgrade the upper stage of the rocket, creating a version of the rocket known as “Block 1B”. Because this variant was taller and more powerful than Block 1, it required extensive modifications to the rocket’s launch tower. NASA engineers estimated that it would take almost three years of work after the initial SLS launch to complete and test the rebuilt tower.
So it seemed plausible that the Orion planners could reuse some components from their spacecraft’s first flight on the second. In particular, they focused on a suite of two dozen avionics “boxes” that are part of the electronic system that operates Orion’s communications, navigation, display and flight control systems. They estimated that it would take about two years to recertify the flight hardware.
By not needing to build two dozen avionics boxes for Orion’s second flight, the program filled the $100 million budget hole. And in terms of timing, they would have nearly a year to spare while work on the launch tower.
“It was just a budget decision,” Kirasich said. “Launch dates were completely different back then.”