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How NASA Plans to Send Humans Back to the Moon

The U.S. space agency is rigorously testing its Orion spacecraft in hopes of launching its first mission to the moon as early as 2019.

NASA has been subjecting its Orion space capsule to a battery of tests designed to tell whether the spacecraft is ready to ferry humans into orbit and beyond. So far, the capsule seems to be on track—in a series of maneuvers this week, a joint team of NASA and U.S. Navy specialists successfully recovered the spaceship from the sea off the coast of San Diego, simulating what would happen when a deep-space mission splashed back to Earth.

If all goes to plan, Orion will become NASA’s flagship technology for launching astronauts to orbit and even to deep space, including to the lunar surface and maybe Mars. Here’s what’s at stake with Orion, and what still needs to be done before it can blast off.

Wait, aren’t U.S. astronauts already getting into space?

Yes, but not on NASA spacecraft. The space shuttle program ended in 2011, and the remaining shuttles are now on display in museums around the country. Since then, American astronauts have had to hitch rides to the International Space Station on Russian rockets, and NASA has sent supplies to the ISS via SpaceX and Orbital ATK launches.

Until Orion becomes available, NASA astronauts have no other way to get to low-Earth orbit and beyond. Commercial space companies like SpaceX and Boeing are developing their own crew capsules capable of reaching the ISS. But when it comes to sending people to the moon or deeper into space, it's not clear yet who will be first to the launch pad.

If Orion’s just a capsule, how will it get off the ground?

Orion is the part that holds the astronauts and research equipment, like a bigger and much improved version of the Apollo capsules. It will be combined with the Space Launch System, a new rocket that is under development and being tested at the same time. Although it has been criticized for excessive costs and delays, the SLS continues to move forward. When ready, it will be more powerful than its competitors, including SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy, which is due to take its maiden voyage in the coming weeks.

Since it can’t land like a shuttle, how will Orion bring astronauts back?

Orion is designed with a heat shield that can withstand temperatures up to 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit as it reenters the atmosphere. Once the capsule slows from 25,000 miles an hour to “only” 300 miles an hour on its descent, it will deploy parachutes to slow it down even more and splash down as gently as possible off the coast of San Diego, where naval ships will be waiting for it. Navy divers will set up a floating platform around the crew module bobbing in the water so that they can first recover the astronauts.

“The crew might feel wobbly,” after their time in space and reentry, says Charles Lundquist, Orion deputy program manager. The recovery team will then attach a winch to Orion and pull it onto the ship’s well deck so the capsule can be reused.

What kinds of tests are they doing on Orion?

This week, NASA has been testing the processes for recovering Orion with the U.S.S. Anchorage, using a mock-up capsule that has about the same size, shape, weight, and center of gravity of the real thing. They’re also testing ground-support equipment, the heat shield, parachute systems, and all the electronics and software. All the components need to come together for Orion’s first big mission.

Astronaut Stephen G. Bowen evokes the memories of Apollo 1 and the space shuttles Challenger and Columbia as he emphasizes “how critical it is that we get this right.” Safety is foremost on NASA scientists’ and engineers’ minds as they try to minimize the risks of space travel.

What’s the plan for Orion’s first mission?

Once it detaches from the SLS and has the right trajectory, Orion will fly past the moon and return to Earth over a three-week period. Exploration Mission 1, as it’s called, is slated to launch in December 2019, but that date could get pushed back into the following year.

The first mission will be uncrewed, but subsequent ones will be more ambitious. NASA currently plans to use Orion to help astronauts build a new space station beyond Earth’s atmosphere, dubbed Deep Space Gateway. Such a station would enable more research on the moon as well as allowing ships to be assembled in space for even more distant missions.

I heard Orion will eventually go to Mars. Is that true?

That’s the plan for now, but it probably wouldn’t happen until the mid-2030s. NASA’s long-term “Journey to Mars” depends on the success of a bunch of missions between now and then, starting with this Orion demonstration. (SpaceX also wants to go to Mars, but there are lots of reasons why humans aren’t there yet.)

How does President Trump’s focus on the moon fit into that?

Unlike the Apollo program, which focused entirely on getting humans on the moon, NASA is trying to make Orion versatile enough to handle a wide range of missions. It would be capable of lunar missions, satisfying Trump’s objectives—for the most part. Trump wanted NASA to send astronauts on Orion’s maiden voyage around the moon, but the agency decided that the additional costs, time, and risks outweighed the benefits.

Since there won’t be astronauts on board, they’ll instead use the first mission to test the limits of the spacecraft. They’ll also ensure that the communication systems work like they’re supposed to, since some processes will be piloted from the ground.

So, what comes next?

Assuming the tests continue to go well, NASA plans to put the real Orion’s components together at Kennedy Space Center in Florida by the end of this year, and then they’ll ship the whole thing to the Plum Brook Facility in Ohio, where they’ll subject it to final tests that simulate the vacuum and frigid temperature of space. Then they’ll send it back to Florida to prepare for launch.