NASA’s Return to the Moon Continues With Orion Spacecraft Order

Apoloo 17 moon surface

NASA recently placed an order for at least six Orion spacecraft from Lockheed Martin. The first six were ordered in batches of three. The first three support Artemis missions III through V and come in at a $2.7 billion price tag. NASA will order three more in fiscal year 2022 for Artemis missions VI through VIII. The staggered approach lets NASA take advantage of improvements in the supply chain to lower costs. Nearly $1 billion is shaved off the second batch at $1.9 billion.

“This contract secures Orion production through the next decade, demonstrating NASA’s commitment to establishing a sustainable presence at the Moon to bring back new knowledge and prepare for sending astronauts to Mars,” said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine. “Orion is a highly-capable, state-of-the-art spacecraft, designed specifically for deep space missions with astronauts, and an integral part of NASA’s infrastructure for Artemis missions and future exploration of the solar system.”

Mark Kirasich, Orion Program manager at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, touts the spacecraft’s capabilities. “No other spacecraft in the world can keep humans alive hundreds of thousands of miles from Earth for weeks at a time with the safety features, crew accommodations, technical innovations, and reliability that Orion provides,” said Kirasich. “With the design and development phase of Orion largely behind us, this new contract will enable us to increase efficiencies, reuse the spacecraft, and bring down the cost of reliably transporting people between earth and the Gateway.”

Notice how the Orion spacecraft ordered don’t start supporting the Artemis missions until the third one? The Orion spacecraft for Artemis I wrapped up construction and outfitting back in June. Here it is.

Artemis I should launch next year in an unmanned flight to the Moon and back. 13 CubeSats will hitch a ride and be placed in orbit around the Earth. The total trip will take a month or so. If everything goes smoothly next year, four astronauts will board an Orion spacecraft for Artemis II set to launch in 2022-2023. They won’t land on the Moon, but the second flight will pave the way for NASA’s return to the Moon in 2024.

Artemis III, the newest capsule set to be built as part of the new contract with Lockheed Martin, will put boots on the Moon’s ground for the first time since 1972.

After that, NASA hopes to launch yearly missions to the Moon as part of the Artemis program. Many of the missions will be in support of the Gateway, a small space station built in lunar orbit. But unlike the International Space Station, the Gateway won’t have astronauts in it all the time. Plus, it’ll be much smaller. NASA likens the Gateway to a studio apartment compared to the six-bedroom house of the ISS. 

NASA is targeting 2026 for the Gateway to be fully assembled.

As with all things space, dates tend to slip as does funding. But there is a steady push to get us back to the Moon and beyond. Artemis gets us to the Moon. We’ll have to wait and see on the ‘beyond’ part.

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