NASA’s program to develop a new spacecraft to carry humans to the moon and back, already years behind schedule and billions of dollars over budget, has hit yet another roadblock, News 6 partner Florida Today reports.
A recently discovered fault in the agency’s Orion capsule has engineers troubleshooting solutions that could impact the timing of its test flight, currently scheduled for liftoff from Kennedy Space Center next November.
The spacecraft, along with the giant Space Launch System rocket also under development, are key components in NASA ambitious Artemis program, which aims to put Americans back on the surface of the moon by 2024.
Last month, Lockheed Martin engineers at KSC discovered a fault in one of eight power and data units, or PDUs, used by the spacecraft: a redundancy channel was not working as planned. Though the PDU itself still works, what is essentially part of its backup system is out of the picture.
“While the PDU is still fully operational without this redundant channel we are swiftly troubleshooting the card while also continuing closeout activities on Orion,” Gary Napier, a Lockheed Martin spokesperson, said in a statement. “We are fully committed to seeing Orion launch next year on its historic Artemis I mission to the moon.”
NASA also confirmed the issue, which was discovered as teams were in the final processing stages leading up to a 1.2-mile transport from the Operations and Checkout Building to the Multi-Payload Processing Facility on Dec. 7. There, it would have been fueled and mated with the launch abort system.
“While powering up the spacecraft to prepare for the pressurization of the crew module uprighting system, which ensures the capsule is oriented upward after splashdown, engineers identified an issue with a redundant channel in a PDU on Orion’s crew module adapter,” NASA said in a statement.
Redundancies and backup systems are critical to spacecraft. They’re built into nearly every aspect ranging from electrical to communications to moving components.
NASA did not confirm details surrounding delays or how engineers plan on addressing the issue, but an internal email and presentation obtained by The Verge point to most options adding months to the readiness timeline.
The presentation mentions three paths forward: disassemble Orion and replace the PDU, located deep in an adapter that connects the capsule to its service module, adding a year to the timeline; find a way through panels on the exterior to access the PDU, which is risky and could take about four months; and finally, since the PDU works, simply continue as is.
For an agency pushing for Orion to become the temporary home of astronauts living and working in space, the last option seems unlikely but possible given that Orion’s November 2021 mission won’t have humans on board. The three-week test will see the 16-foot-diameter capsule launch on SLS, orbit the moon for six days, then return for splashdown off the California coast.
If successful, Artemis II will take flight two years later with astronauts on a similar orbit around the moon and pave the way for Artemis III, which aims to put astronauts on the surface in 2024. All missions would be processed in KSC’s Vehicle Assembly Building, then rolled out to pad 39B for liftoff.
But sticking to the Artemis program’s ambitious schedule isn’t solely on Orion’s shoulders. While Lockheed Martin builds the capsule, Boeing is responsible for most of the SLS rocket, which has been plagued by years of cost overruns and delays – the first flight was actually slated to launch in 2017.
NASA’s own inspector general recently said the entirety of the Artemis program’s timeline is prone to delays caused by hardware-related slowdowns, cost overruns, and changing winds in the political climate. Combined, the SLS-Orion effort is expected to cost the agency some $50 billion by 2024.
In its July report, the OIG said continuing to produce Orion capsules for all Artemis missions before certain milestones are complete, like Artemis I, poses serious risks. Last month’s discovery of the PDU issue appears to reinforce their position.
“Orion is proceeding with production of crew capsules for future Artemis missions before completing key development activities, increasing the risk of additional cost growth and schedule delays as issues are discovered late in the development effort, potentially requiring costly rework,” the OIG said.