NASA's Orion spacecraft is getting closer to first trip to the Moon

A test of the Orion abort system. Photo: NASA/Tony Gray and Kevin O'Connell

The Orion spacecraft — designed to bring astronauts to deep space destinations — is slowly but surely preparing for its first mission to the Moon.

Why it matters: Orion is a major part of NASA's Artemis plans, which are expected to bring astronauts to the Moon by 2024.

Driving the news: The spacecraft passed a key test last week: NASA staged a test of the capsule's abort system, which is designed to pull a crew away from a failing rocket in the moments after launch.

  • That in-flight abort — which NASA says was a success — marks one of Orion's final major milestones ahead of its first crewed mission to the Moon.

Details: The next big test for Orion will be what's known as the Artemis-1 mission, when the capsule — sans astronauts — and huge Space Launch System (SLS) rocket fly together for the first time.

  • For that mission — formerly called Exploration Mission-1 — NASA is planning to send Orion on a trip around the Moon and back to Earth, testing the systems the craft will need in space.
  • The first crewed Orion mission is planned for 2022, with the 2024 landing to follow.
  • For the 2024 mission, Orion is expected to fly to the Moon and dock with NASA's yet-to-be-built Gateway space station in lunar orbit. From there, astronauts delivered to Gateway will descend to the Moon's surface aboard a lander.

Yes, but: While Artemis-1 is expected to fly as soon as next year, the timeline is in doubt due to serious delays with both Orion and SLS, leaving little room for further setbacks if NASA intends to meet its 2024 deadline.

What's next

NASA's long trip back to the Moon

Earth seen from above the Moon during Apollo 11. Photo: NASA

Fifty years after NASA first landed people on the Moon with its Apollo program, it's now aiming to do it again, but the storied space agency has a long way to go before it can get there.

Driving the news: Last week, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine reassigned Bill Gerstenmaier, a beloved figure at the agency, from his role as the head of human exploration and operations.

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Pence: NASA ready for final preparations for U.S. manned Moon mission

Photo: Alastair Pike/AFP/Getty Images

Vice President Mike Pence said at Kennedy Space Center Saturday that NASA's Orion capsule is "ready to begin preparations for its historic first flight" to take American astronauts back to the Moon.

What he's saying: "America will return to the Moon within the next 5 years and the next man and the first woman on the Moon will be American astronauts,” Pence said at the event on the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landing, alongside Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin. "We’re going back."

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How NASA's Moon missions got their names

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

In Greek mythology, Apollo is Artemis’ twin sister, but to the chagrin of some classicists, the first crewed U.S. Moon mission was named after him. Only now is Artemis — the name of NASA's 2024 mission — getting the credit some say she deserves.

The context: 50 years ago, the workforce behind Apollo 11 was majority white and male. With the Artemis program, NASA aims to be more inclusive. The agency plans to send the next man and the first woman to the lunar surface in 5 years.

Go deeperArrowJul 20, 2019 - Science