NASA: Crewed mission to orbit moon could come in November 2024

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NASA leaders on Tuesday deemed the agency's Artemis I mission that flew late last year a success and said they are happy with the results of the uncrewed 25-day test to the moon and back. Officials also said that because of the success, quick progress is being made toward the next moon mission which is slated to fly four astronauts around the moon as soon as November 2024.

"We're still so happy about the successful flight that we had with Artemis I," NASA's Jim Free, associate administrator of Exploration Systems Development, told reporters. "That was a flight test for us really to prove out our systems in that real environment and even push the vehicle beyond where we had originally intended."

Though determined to be an overall success, Free reiterated that it was a test flight that produced magnitudes of data that is still being combed through that has already revealed lessons learned. "We're looking at a couple of anomalies that we saw during the mission. We'll continue to look for those areas to really make sure that our confidence continues to grow every day as we move towards Artemis II."

NASA's Space Launch System, the world's most powerful operational rocket caused more damage to the launch pad and massive mobile tower. There were a few interesting flight operations events that occurred with the Orion capsule during re-entry, including sustaining more heat shield damage than anticipated.

If everything proceeds as planned, the agency's Artemis II mission is on track for launch next year. That will largely resemble Artemis I but this time, a team of four astronauts will travel around the moon and back without landing on the surface.

"We have heartbeats on (the Artemis II) mission. We need to make sure we understand the risks that were taken," Free said. "We're making sure we're capturing those lessons learned and the preps for Artemis II continue to move forward."

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Concerns with Orion

Though Orion was uncrewed for the Artemis I test flight, it still went on to break agency records.

"We did have a record-breaking mission in terms of where Orion went," Howard Hu, manager of the Orion program, told reporters. "We got as close as 80 miles to the surface of the moon and we traveled farther than any human spacecraft has gone before."

But there were a few hiccups along the way.

Hu said teams saw 24 instances when hardware that connected propulsion and heating systems switched off without being commanded to do so. Each time, engineers were able to restart the components and there were "no impacts of spacecraft performance or power generation," Hu said.

That issue is being investigated by the European Space Agency, which builds the service module attached to the bottom of Orion.

"This will be very interesting at the end of the month as we go through a couple of weeks of tests to show if we can find root cause associated with this event," Hu said.

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Another issue with Orion: the heat shield demonstrated more damage than anticipated. On Dec. 11, Orion re-entered Earth's atmosphere faster and from farther away than any other spacecraft ever had.

"Some of the expected char material that we would expect coming back home ablated away differently than what our computer models and what our ground testing predicted," Hu said. "There's a lot of work to be done in this investigation going forward."

Hu said samples were taken and X-rays were performed to better understand what caused the excess charring and ablation, or the process which burns the material to keep heat away from the Orion capsule. He also said teams are comparing data collected by the spacecraft during re-entry with images, videos, and computer models to better understand the heat shield's performance.

"We are just starting that effort because we've just gotten together all those pieces of information, those samples, the videos, images, and the data from the spacecraft itself and correlated them together," Hu said. "Now we're assessing that data and moving forward."

Ground support and countdown software

With the first launch of the SLS rocket, which generated a whopping 8.8 million pounds of thrust, some launch pad and area damage was to be expected.

Pad 39B at Kennedy Space Center demonstrated heat damage on the deck and scorched land nearby immediately after liftoff. Dislodged gas lines, damaged control panels, and blown-off elevator doors were also noted.

According to NASA's Shawn Quinn, manager of Exploration Ground Systems at the Kennedy Space Center, work to repair that damage is already underway. One of the two damaged elevators is already back in working order.

"One thing to remember is that the Artemis I was as much of a test for the ground (systems) as it was for SLS and Orion," Quinn said. "Overall, we're very pleased with the performance of the ground systems throughout the Artemis flow, including stacking, launch operations, and recovery."

Quinn said upgrades and modifications necessary to support the crew on the next Artemis flight, including safety systems to evacuate the crew away from the pad in an emergency, are also underway. Other alterations include software updates with the launch countdown to include crew-related activities like suit-up, transport to the launch pad, and loading into the Orion capsule.

"We're making updates to our ground software for Artemis II that will include additional automation largely based on lessons learned from Artemis I," Quinn said.

Additional countdown automation changes are a result of a launch attempt that was scrubbed due to a suspected manual command error from the launch control center. Addressing that as a possible safety concern, Free said, "we'll continue to implement changes, but we implemented changes immediately thereafter."

"I won't say they're behind us because we always have humans in the system," Free said. "I think we've implemented the right way to take care of what happened there."

Other Artemis II preparations focus on the Orion capsule.

Hu told reporters materials like avionics boxes from the Artemis I capsule have already been extracted, refurbished for reuse, and installed on the Artemis II capsule. Other components like thermal control systems to manage the temperature inside the capsule and hand controls to allow astronauts to take manual control still need to be installed and tested.

Though it will be shorter, the Artemis II mission will largely mirror Artemis I. The announcement of which astronauts will be chosen for the first crewed Artemis moon mission is expected from NASA sometime later this spring. Then, sometime before 2030, the agency hopes to put two astronauts on the lunar surface.

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This article originally appeared on Florida Today: NASA: Artemis I lessons and updates ahead of next moon mission