NASA’s Orion spacecraft completed its uncrewed Artemis I flight test in 2022, paving the way for future crewed missions to the Moon and beyond. During the flight, Orion launched atop the Space Launch System rocket, flew by the Moon twice coming within 80 miles of the lunar surface, and at its farthest distance traveled a record-breaking 268,563 miles from our home planet before returning to Earth. The uncrewed 25.5-day mission provided valuable data on the performance of the spacecraft’s critical systems and equipment before astronauts fly aboard beginning with Artemis II.
Orion’s performance validated the technical capabilities of the spacecraft, identified areas where more analysis is taking place, and provided the mission operations team opportunities to learn how the systems work together. The mission would not have been possible without the work of a worldwide team encompassing all 50 U.S. states and 10 European nations. Thousands of individuals helped make the mission successful.
Orion’s service module — the powerhouse of the spacecraft that supplies it with power, propulsion, thermal control, and on future missions, air, and water — was assembled by ESA (European Space Agency) and its lead contractor Airbus in Bremen, Germany, from components supplied by U.S. and European companies.
“What was really cool for us as a team was to see the pictures that Orion took of itself with the cameras on the solar arrays, and to see in space hardware that was in our clean rooms just a few years ago,” said Annemarie Lohse, the major spacecraft delivery lead for the thermal, consumables and structure subsystems of the service module at Airbus. “We’re all very proud that we have the chance to dedicate a big part of our life and our career to this mission of bringing humans back to deep space.”
Although it didn’t carry astronauts on Artemis I, Orion’s crew module housed payloads including the data-collecting manikin Commander Moonikin Campos, which occupied the commander seat facing the spacecraft’s windows. The structural pieces that form the four crew module windows are machined by California-based subcontractor AMRO Fabricating Corp., and are part of Orion’s underlying structure called the pressure vessel that will provide the air-tight, habitable space for astronauts on Artemis II – the first mission with astronauts.
“Being a part of this first mission meant an incredible amount to us,” said Joe Bianchi, project manager at AMRO. “Seeing the success invigorated a lot of people, both our shop and in the office. It reminds us what we’re building isn’t just part of a job — it’s an actual mission, a living, breathing program that we can take pride in. When that crew module splashed down, that was our hardware coming back to Earth from thousands of miles in deep space.”
Inside the spacecraft, critical avionics including Orion’s flight computers are developed by Honeywell Aerospace, headquartered in Phoenix.
“The safety of the astronauts, the success of the mission, and the quality of our hardware has always been our top priority, and we pride ourselves on that,” said Heath Higgins, Orion system project engineer at Honeywell.
“We’ve been here from day one, and we’ve always been proud to be a partner supplier for this program, and proud of the dedication and perseverance of our teams. It’s a great moment for us to finally get to this point and back into exploration on the Moon.”
Returning home, Orion encountered its most important objective: demonstrating the heat shield can withstand the high speed and high heat conditions when re-entering Earth’s atmosphere from the Moon. The heat shield protected Orion as it returned to Earth traveling nearly 25,000 mph and reaching temperatures of nearly 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit.
“Working on the thermal protection system is a big responsibility, but a really exciting job,” said Eric Esposito, the thermal analysis lead for Orion’s lead contractor, Lockheed Martin. “There’s a lot of pride that comes with ensuring you do your job right. As exciting as Artemis I was, once we’re starting to fly crewed missions, perform science, and gather more data on orbit, it’s going to be even more exciting for our team to be a part of that process.”
At the end of the mission, a system of 11 parachutes, made by Airborne Systems in Santa Ana, California, slowed the spacecraft to a safe speed of about 16 mph for splashdown in the Pacific Ocean.
“We watched the parachutes operate as we’ve seen them dozens of times before in tests, but here it was for real,” said Tom Lemm, deputy program manager at Airborne. “It was a moment of elation, a moment of relief. It was just really cool to know we had a part in that.”
Teams are working on de-servicing the Artemis I Orion spacecraft inside the Multi Payload Processing Facility at Kennedy Space Center in Florida, and teams from NASA, international partners, contractors, and suppliers also continue to work together toward future Artemis missions for Orion.
Through Artemis missions, NASA will land the first woman and the first person of color on the surface of the Moon, paving the way for a long-term lunar presence and serving as a steppingstone for astronauts on the way to Mars.
NASA Johnson Space Center