The launch of the Artemis I mission in mid-November was incredible, and NASA’s Orion spacecraft has operated almost flawlessly ever since. If all goes according to plan — and there’s no reason to think it won’t — Orion will run aground in calm seas off the California coast this weekend.
This exploration mission has provided dazzling images of the Earth and Moon and offered the promise that humans will soon be flying into deep space again. So the question for NASA is when can we expect a return?
Realistically, a follow-up to Artemis I is likely at least two years away. Most likely, the Artemis II mission won’t happen until early 2025, although NASA isn’t giving up hope of launching humans into deep space in 2024.
It may seem strange to have such a long gap. After all, with its November flight, the Space Launch System rocket proved it could. And if Orion returns to Earth safe and sound, it will validate the calculations of the engineers who designed and built its heat shield. Will it take more than two years to complete construction of a second rocket and spacecraft and complete certification of life support systems inside Orion?
The short answer is no, and the reason for the long pause is kind of silly. It all goes back to a decision made about eight years ago to plug a $100 million budget shortfall in the Orion program. Given the chain of events that followed this decision, it is unlikely that Artemis II will fly before 2025 due to its eight relatively small flight computers.
“I hate to say that this time it’s Orion that’s holding us back,” Mark Keracisch, who was NASA’s Orion program manager when the decision was made, said in an interview. “But I’m talking about the back. It’s part of my heritage.”
A long time ago, on a far budget
About eight years ago, top NASA officials and Orion’s prime contractor, Lockheed Martin, needed to make up for the budget shortfall. At the time, NASA was spending $1.2 billion a year developing the Orion spacecraft, and while it was making progress on the design, challenges were still present.
NASA’s exploration plans at the time were fundamentally different from today’s Artemis program. Nominally, the agency was building an Orion rocket and an SLS rocket as part of a “journey to Mars.” But there was no clear plan on how to get there, and there were no well-defined missions for the Orion flight.
The main difference is that NASA only planned to launch 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. As this variant was longer and more powerful than the Block 1, it required major modifications to the missile’s launch tower. NASA engineers estimated that it would take about three years of work after the initial launch of the SLS 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 flight. In particular, they focused on a group of more than two dozen avionics “boxes” that are part of the electronic system that powers Orion’s communications, navigation, display, and flight control systems. They estimated that it would take about two years to re-certify the flight hardware.
By not having to build twenty avionics boxes for Orion’s second flight, the program closed the $100 million budget gap. And depending on the schedule, they’ll have about a year to spare while they work on the launch tower.
“It was just a budget decision,” Keracic said. “The launch dates were very different back then.”