NASA is going back to the moon; at least that’s the plan. To get there, the agency has to develop a new generation of crewed spacecraft, including the Space Launch System (SLS) megarocket and the Orion crew module. While the SLS is still in development, Orion has already passed its initial flight tests. NASA’s primary Orion contractor, Lockheed Martin has just started work on one very important project: the first welds of the Orion capsule that will return humans to the moon.
NASA began work on the Artemis program in 2017 with the aim of launching a crewed mission to the lunar surface in 2024. That will be the Artemis III mission — prior to that, Artemis I will be an uncrewed test flight around the moon and back. Artemis II will be the same mission but with a crew inside Orion. Artemis III will add a landing that will include the first woman to ever set foot on the moon.
Unlike the SpaceX Dragon capsule, Orion is not designed to be reusable. That means the hardware for each mission has to be purpose-built for the mission. While Artemis III is still years away from launch, Lockheed Martin has started building its Orion module. Technicians at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans completed the first welds on this vessel to bring the three cone panels together into the distinctive funnel shape you see above.
The Orion spacecraft has just seven structural welds. There are three that hold the cone together, plus four more at bulkheads that hold the vessel’s five sections together. The welding process is designed specifically to keep these machined pieces stable and airtight even under the harshest of conditions.
Once the structural welds are done, NASA will ship the Artemis III Orion to Kennedy Space Center in Florida. From there, NASA will be able to integrate all the systems that make Orion a spacecraft and not just a giant aluminum pressure vessel.
The SLS that will carry Orion capsules into space is still in development. A recent static fire test ended early due to a system error, but NASA says the issue is minor. It’s still undecided on re-running the test, but the Artemis I launch is still on the books for late 2021. Although, the SLS has already been delayed several times, and it’s possible the Artemis Program could suffer if things don’t turn around for NASA’s troubled rocket.
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