Inside the giant US rocket factory: How will NASA return to the moon?

In the past 50 years, humans have not traveled more than a few hundred kilometers from Earth. Those “short jumps” show our level and presence in space, but they do not overcome the very long distances that we used to do.

Now, however, the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has once again set its sights on the moon, and its ambitions to get there are increasingly clear.

But to make this trip, they will need the most powerful and advanced spacecraft ever. It’s a super-heavy rocket called the Space Launch System and a high-tech crew vehicle called the Orion.

Together, these impressive space hardware will make up the Artemis, a historic exploration vehicle and a large-scale space program that will send the first woman and first person of color to the moon. , as well as taking humanity farther into deep space than any previous attempt.

NASA has three flights planned for the first phase of the Artemis program, all using the Space Launch System (SLS). Each SLS rocket will only fly once. There will be no so-called test flights.

This massive spacecraft will be launched to the moon in its first launch this year, likely in August, without a crew. During the second flight, the payload of the SLS, the Orion capsule, will fly the astronauts around the moon before re-entering Earth’s atmosphere at a speed of 40,000 km/h and a temperature of 2,760 degrees Celsius. In its third flight, scheduled for early 2025, Orion will land to bring up to four Artemis crew members to the moon. And it will mark the first time humans have set foot there since 1972.

That’s an ambitious goal, with a correspondingly hefty price tag: $93 billion since 2012, according to a recent audit. But in 2022, a decade after those costs first began to be calculated, the first rocket is preparing to be launched. And the world will finally get to see what the next-generation lunar rocket is really capable of.

Construction of Artemis is a big project, and it’s happening at the Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans, which used to build space shuttles for the Saturn and Apollo exploration programs.

This place is known as “American Missile Factory”. And here, NASA, Boeing and Lockheed Martin are building what will take us on a truly historic journey.

Like any factory, it is an active complex, with constructions for many different rockets at the same time. However, everyone here knows the importance of a project like Artemis.

“We don’t build washing machines,” said Tim Livingston, Lockheed Martin’s director of general planning for the Orion project at the Michoud facility. “We build a national treasure.”

Inside the giant US rocket factory How will NASA return to the moon | Uncategorized
Inside the giant US rocket factory How will NASA return to the moon | Uncategorized

Think of it as an automobile production line. But instead of attaching doors and body panels, you’re building a 98-meter-tall rocket, bigger than the Statue of Liberty. A project of this scale required a unique factory with an area of ​​190,000 square meters.

“What you need is open space,” said Michoud Assembly Facility Manager Lonnie Dutreix. . And the strength of the floor, people don’t realize that there are no boulders in South Louisiana… so the floor here has to be reinforced to support the enormous weight.”

The assembly facility is so large that there is a separate room to house its model, allowing people to visualize the entire factory as well as the path the rocket will take when it is built. Dutreix is ​​the engineer overseeing the largest works at Michoud since the first stage of the Saturn V rocket, which was built for the first Apollo program. The Artemis I rocket will be slightly shorter than the Saturn V, but it can handle a much larger payload.

Dutreix has been in the space industry for decades. He helped build and test parts for the space shuttle program in the 1990s. But the man isn’t complacent with his past experiences, because Dutreix knows the task is difficult and important. this important.

“I would use an analogy, to make a comparison to building an airplane,” he said. “It takes redundancy, reliability and a lot of testing to make sure that plane will do the job safely, because you have people on board. And do the right thinking. only with a rocket, but amplifying everything 100 times.”

Inside the giant US rocket factory How will NASA return to the moon | Uncategorized

While NASA places a great deal of emphasis on accuracy and safety with every space program and construction it undertakes, the stakes are even higher for crewed flights. And while the Artemis program won’t put a crew on its first flight, the main focus of the program is on sending humans to the moon and deeper into the solar system.

In the immediate future, NASA is focusing on the first three Artemis flights.

Artemis I is scheduled to launch in 2022 and will orbit the moon without an astronaut. This flight will test the capabilities of the SLS Space Launch System, the Orion spacecraft and all the Exploration Ground Systems (EGS) supporting the flight. EGS was established to develop and operate the systems and facilities necessary to handle and launch rockets and spacecraft during assembly, transport and launch.

On Artemis II, NASA will send crews to fly over the far side of the moon for the first time. It’s set to launch after 2024. As for Artemis III, NASA says it won’t be earlier than 2025, a third and final rocket that will bring the first woman and first black man to the poles. south of the moon and inscribed their footprints on its surface.

Each of the core stages and Orion ships for those flights were built at Michoud. In fact, Artemis I’s rocket and crewed spacecraft have been moved out of the facility and are on their way to the launch pad at Cape Canaveral in Florida. Now, workers at the Michoud facility are working on Artemis II, III and IV, as well as parts for future deep space missions.

“We have to get ahead of the construction,” Dutreix said. “It’s not a one-to-one thing.”

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At the Michoud facility, Boeing is working on the core stage of the Space Launch System, or SLS for short. This is also where Lockheed Martin is building the Orion spacecraft, a structure that allows creating atmospheric pressure so that astronauts can survive in space.

The core floor of the SLS alone is 64 meters long, longer than an Olympic-sized swimming pool. It’s essentially two giant fuel tanks connected together: one holds 740 cubic meters of supercooled liquid oxygen, and a second, larger tank holds 2,000 cubic meters of liquid hydrogen. These containers, along with SLS’ solid boosters (which are upgrades from the space shuttle program), will provide the thrust to lift the 27-ton rocket off Earth and into space.

Building and crafting something big is an incredibly difficult task, but if you walk around the Michoud facility, you’ll realize it’s just like any other production line. The individual areas that make up the rocket are welded together to form sections of larger containers and then closed with lids to create pill-shaped containers. Components can be huge, but like any other manufacturing task, engineers still put them together piece by piece. According to an old adage, building Artemis is as simple as eating elephant meat, one bite at a time. Except for this case, it’s a giant elephant made of metal, and it can fly into space.

Standing next to pieces of SLS on the factory floor in Michoud, anyone would feel really short. But according to Boeing, while the entire SLS looks huge, its walls are surprisingly thin.

“If you imagine a Coke can expand to the size of a container of liquid hydrogen, the wall thickness of the tank would be proportionally similar,” said Amanda Gertjejansen, Boeing’s integration project lead for the phase. core Artemis II said.

“But engineering and technology allows it to be able to withstand the pressure of the hundreds of cubic meters of fuel that will be burned in it, as well as when they are frozen. That’s amazing.”

Inside the giant US rocket factory How will NASA return to the moon | Uncategorized

Walking around Michoud you can see and hear how a rocket is being built. Huge sheets of material are stacked for welding, and rocket sections move from station to station. Everything is busy and noisy.

All of the SLS rocket parts will rotate inside the Michoud Assembly Facility, which will eventually make their way to the Vertical Assembly Center, where they are put into a giant stack, then welded together. into a massive fuel tank.

The slack will then go to the Final Assembly Area, where the final tanks are combined or attached to the engine section to become a full SLS system. And that’s where the sheer scale of the entire work becomes apparent to judgement.

“The sheer size of the vehicle we’re building here is amazing,” said NASA Stages Engineer Chandler Scheuermann. That could be a shock to all the engineering people around the world.”

Inside the giant US rocket factory How will NASA return to the moon | Uncategorized
Inside the giant US rocket factory How will NASA return to the moon | Uncategorized

If SLS is about creating the sheer power and thrust to send astronauts into space, building the Orion spacecraft is about controlling and keeping them alive until they reach their destination. .

While every part of the Artemis building is mission critical, the “stakes” are particularly high for manned vehicles.

“When you build a spaceship, you can’t go wrong,” said Tim Livingston, Director of Orion Integrated Planning at Lockheed Martin. what has been seen before. And so you have to make sure that the resulting product is strong enough to ensure that there is no damage to vehicles or lives.”

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The Orion Crew Vehicle, the full name of the Orion spacecraft, is made up of countless parts. Its service modules are manufactured at the European Space Agency (ESA) dedicated European service module production facility. This module will guide Orion through space and around the moon after separating from SLS. It contained enough food and water to feed the four astronauts during the three-week mission.

Above the service module is the crew module. It is a pressurized capsule manufactured by Lockheed Corporation. It is about a third larger than the command module of the Apollo spacecraft in the past, with the system computing 4,000 times faster. It has seating for four astronauts (instead of three like Apollo), a radiation shelter where the crew can hide from the effects of solar storms, and even a machine. Compact exercise. But while NASA is targeting longer-term missions into deep space, the capsule isn’t exactly that spacious.

“It’s still really cramped,” Livingston said. “For most missions, there will be four astronauts … so everyone will have to be very close together for a long period of time.”

But despite the tight space, this was already a huge step up from the Apollo era. No more waste-absorbing pants. Instead there was a toilet with a door.

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And this capsule isn’t just about keeping astronauts alive in space. It must also protect them when they return to Earth. According to Livingston, crewed spacecraft returning from low Earth orbit over the past four decades have been subjected to temperatures of about 1,600 degrees Celsius. And on the return journey, Orion will gradually accelerate. 40,000 km/h during “re-entry”, faster than any current spacecraft designed for humans. Higher speed means higher temperature. And Orion will have to withstand 2,760 degrees Celsius, so thermal protection systems will be significantly different.

“It’s a harsh environment,” Livinston said. “But that’s why they’re astronauts and we’re not.”

Inside the giant US rocket factory How will NASA return to the moon | Uncategorized

When work on the SLS and Orion is over, the team at Michoud will move them to the test site at the Stennis Space Center in Mississippi, and then assemble at Cape Canaveral in Florida. And that is where the fruits of working at Michoud are proven and paid off. The voyage was carried out by a barge moored in the deep sea port, right in front of the Michoud facility.

Inside the giant US rocket factory How will NASA return to the moon | Uncategorized

The Artemis program has been running at NASA for over a decade. Congress initially called for the rocket to be ready to launch by the end of 2016. And while NASA hopes to launch Artemis I later this year, the decision date has been pushed back several times. As for the time to set foot on the moon? 2025 could be an ambitious milestone. In fact, NASA’s Inspector General projects that date as early as 2026.

And then there’s the issue of cost. According to NASA Inspector General Paul Martin, the program is expected to cost $93 billion by 2025. Each individual Artemis I, II, and III flight is estimated to be worth $4.1 billion.

The program has also compared with other heavy rockets from private companies such as SpaceX, which is building the Starship spacecraft. Like Artemis, Starship is being built to carry crew and cargo to the moon and Mars. But unlike the Starship program, no modified prototypes of the SLS or Orion were sent on test flights for Artemis.

According to Amanda Gertjejansen from Boeing, the core built at the Michoud facility is the same vehicle that was sent for testing at Stennis Space Center and the same vehicle that was delivered to the Kennedy Center.

“You have prototypes, test equipment, and launch vehicles all in one,” she said.

And although the Artemis I won’t carry astronauts, the rocket is still a “vessel rated to carry people” according to Gertjejansen, meaning it has been certified safe to carry crews.

Also unlike SpaceX’s Starship, Artemis is not designed for reuse. Each rocket will only launch once. So when private companies are launching and landing the same rocket to use on repeat missions, why spend all that money on a single-use rocket?

For NASA, reusability will cost them dearly.

“Our mission is to get as much mass to the moon as possible in one launch,” said Mr. Dutreix. “When you have reusability, there’s a trade-off in payload for that. You have to have the gear to land it, you have to have more fuel – all of that takes away the mass that you can put on the moon.”

Despite the program’s costs, NASA ultimately wanted to make money back on their investment. According to Dutreix, the goal is to commercialize the Artemis and sell the missile to anyone who needs heavy launch capabilities.

“With the Artemis V, we want it to go from production to commercial,” says Dutreix. “If you build a rocket, you can sell it to anyone who needs heavy launch capabilities … and if they do can do it cheaper and better, they need to do it. We need to look at high-risk things like going to Mars.”

Inside the giant US rocket factory How will NASA return to the moon | Uncategorized

And that is the long-term vision. NASA wants Artemis to pave the way to deep space. These initial Artemis launches were a stepping stone towards a larger goal, which was to send astronauts to the moon, establish a base on the moon, and then to Mars.

Compared to the last time NASA went to the moon, they are now trying to win the space race of the 1960s and 70s, by sending an elite group of astronauts on a journey to uncharted land. known. Now NASA is doing it all again with Artemis, named after the god who was Apollo’s twin sister. A space program would send more people into space, not just the 24 men who traveled to the moon during the Apollo era or the lucky dozen who set foot on lunar dust.

“This is our first time and it’s been so much fun,” says Dutreix. “I try to make it Young engineers and scientists are excited to realize that you are making history. Now you may not realize it. But at some point, when you’re my age, you realize: Man, I was there when we started it.”

Inside the giant US rocket factory How will NASA return to the moon | Uncategorized

Refer to Cnet

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