NASA Exploration Ground Systems (EGS) have been preparing and planning for the Artemis II launch since before the flight crew was announced on April 3. Teams at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida are looking forward to working closely with the four astronauts who will be the first to fly to the Moon in over 50 years.
Integration Console engineers for the Artemis launch team hope to work with the flight crew as much as possible to help make the eventual launch day for Artemis II go smoothly. As the launch nears, the crew will spend time inside their Orion spacecraft, getting familiar with their home away from home and evaluating the countdown schedule for getting strapped in Orion after their Space Launch System (SLS) rocket’s propellants are loaded for flight.
Getting the Flight Crew Involved During the Launch Campaign
“We want to get them involved as early and as much as possible,” Anton Kiriwas, EGS Senior Technical Integration Manager and Senior Launch Project Engineer (LPE), said about the still-to-be-named Artemis II flight crew in a March 20 interview with NASASpaceflight. The crew was revealed to the public on April 3 in an event held at Ellington Field in Houston, Texas.
The mission commander is Reid Wiseman, the pilot is Victor Glover, mission specialist 1 is Christina Hammock Koch, and mission specialist 2 is Jeremy Hansen. Wiseman, Glover, and Koch are all NASA astronauts, while Hansen is a Canadian Space Agency (CSA) astronaut.
Artemis II will be the first crewed mission of NASA’s EGS, Orion, and SLS programs, which were recently reorganized under the Moon to Mars Program Office in the Exploration Systems Development Mission Directorate. EGS is responsible for the integration and launch of the SLS and Orion flight hardware. The addition of the four astronauts to launch preparations and launch day will be a first-time experience for many people who joined the programs beginning with Artemis.
The most recent forecasts project most of the Artemis II flight hardware to arrive at KSC by the end of 2023, with stacking operations beginning in the Vehicle Assembly Building on Mobile Launcher-1 in the first quarter of 2024. The crew will probably make multiple visits to KSC between now and then, but they will also play an integral role in the pre-launch processing for Artemis II next year ahead of a launch that is forecast to be no earlier than late November 2024.
Orion prime contractor Lockheed Martin will formally hand over the Artemis II spacecraft to EGS when assembly is complete next year in the Armstrong Operations and Checkout (O&C) Building at KSC. The spacecraft will be transported from the O&C Building to the Multi-Payload Processing Facility (MPPF) to begin launch preparations.
The spacecraft will be loaded with fluids and propellant in the MPPF as an early part of configuring Orion for flight. EGS will also begin some outfitting of the crew cabin at that time, and the crew could play a role at that stage of launch preparations.
“We’re actually looking at some opportunities even while the spacecraft is in the MPPF,” Kiriwas said. “Obviously that’s not a full validation of the configuration that we’re in when we’re ready to fly, but we want to get them involved as early and as much as possible.”
Flight crews have also been involved in Crew Equipment Interface Tests during the Shuttle and Commercial Crew Programs, and those may also occur before and after EGS begins Orion launch preparations.
Working Through Launch Countdown Changes for First Crew
The integrated Orion/SLS vehicle was launched by EGS on Nov. 16 to begin the uncrewed Artemis I mission. The Artemis II launch also adds crew operations into the launch countdown timeline, and EGS will be revising and evolving plans for this first crewed launch of both Orion and SLS between now and when they are ready to proceed with the mission.
The launch countdown template for Artemis I was extended by a couple of hours from the beginning of the launch campaign to the end, as lessons were learned about the propellant loading process in particular. The launch countdown for SLS and Orion is a little less than 48 hours in length, with two planned built-in holds.
The first hold occurs at T-6 hours and 40 minutes. This is the decision point for management on whether to tank the vehicle. By the time Artemis I had launched, the length of the hold had been extended to three hours and 30 minutes in duration. A 30-minute hold at T-10 minutes acts as the decision point for management on whether all elements are ready to proceed with terminal count and launch.
(Photo Caption: The Artemis I vehicle in the VAB in August 2022, as seen from the top of the Mobile Launcher. Exploration Ground Systems plans to conduct an unfueled, “dry” countdown demonstration test with the Artemis II crew getting onboard the vehicle in the VAB to in part help validate the crew’s launch day timeline.)
At the current time, working plans for the Artemis II launch countdown are to integrate the timeline for boarding the crew into that existing high-level template. “This is all still in work and validating our plan based on what we saw for tanking for Artemis 1 and integrating crew ingress and configuration,” Alex Pandelos, EGS Launch Integration Operational Project Engineer (OPE) and primary GLS engineer for Artemis I, said in the March 20 interview with NASASpaceflight. “We don’t expect new planned holds at this point.”
Adding a couple of hours to the hold at T-6 hours and 30 minutes, along with changes to the SLS fueling sequence, allowed the launch team to get ahead of the overall countdown timeline during the third and final launch attempt for Artemis I. Fueling of the SLS Core Stage was essentially complete and the Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage (ICPS) was being loaded with liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen before a leaky valve inside the base of the Mobile Launcher held things up.
The launch team is looking to factor that extra “get ahead” time margin into the crew boarding timeline. “At this point, we’ll be looking at what that margin was, between the adjustments we made to our tanking timeline and what margin we really had there, because we were taking a conservative approach for Artemis I,” Pandelos explained.
“It was the first time tanking the vehicle [that] we’d had problems going through, so we built in margin for Artemis I. [What we’re doing now is] trying to look and see is that sufficient margin for the crew operations, or do we have to extend that out a little bit, because, on the other end, you do have constraints on how long you can have the crew onboard and how long you can have them in that position.”
For missions like Artemis I and Artemis II that can have launch windows up to two hours in duration, crewed launches will also have a constraint on how long the crew can be lying on their backs in Orion before liftoff. “[There’s] a lot of work still to come, but the thought at least right now is that the time that we added in the Artemis I flow goes a long way towards accounting for those crew operations as well,” Pandelos added.
One of the tasks that the launch team plans to work on with the crew is mapping out the timeline of the launch day ingress activities. While the launch team is fueling the vehicle on Launch Pad 39B and making final launch day preparations, the crew will suit up for launch at crew quarters in the Armstrong Operations and Checkout Building; when it is safe to do so, the crew will ride to the pad and get onboard Orion.
The teams and the crew will be rehearsing and reviewing how long it takes to get into their spacecraft, get their suits plugged in and double-checked, and for the closeout crew supporting them to finish their work. Over the next many months, they will be trying to balance how long that takes with factors such as when the launch pad area is safe for the crew to arrive, that “crew on back” time constraint, and a launch window of perhaps two hours.
(Photo Caption: The Artemis I Orion spacecraft in the Multi-Payload Processing Facility in January 2021. In addition to supporting the loading of fluids and propellant on Orion, the MPPF provides internal access to the crew cabin for initial outfitting for flight.)
“We’ll be validating all of that,” Tony Bartolone, EGS Launch Project Engineer, said. “We have a crew demonstration test that we used to do historically with all the Shuttle launches where we’ll get the flight crew out here, we’ll practice loading them into the spacecraft, strapping them in, going through all of the procedures, our comm checks.”
The equivalent of a dry dress rehearsal, the countdown demonstration test with the Artemis II crew will be performed while the vehicle and Mobile Launcher are in the VAB. The concept of operations for SLS is different than Apollo and the Space Shuttle, completing as much of the pre-launch test and checkout indoors in the VAB. Unlike the launch pads that support the launch vehicles for the Dragon and Starliner spacecraft, the EGS Mobile Launcher for Orion and SLS includes access to the spacecraft on the umbilical tower.
A “dry” dress rehearsal, where hazardous propellant loading is not performed, could be conducted in the VAB or at the pad; however, the plan is to do the crew demonstration test in the VAB first.
“That’s all planned to be done in the VAB once we get the Orion stacked on top, and we’ll make sure that we have a good understanding of what that timeline looks like without being in the cryo-loaded environment,” Bartolone said. “Then, when we get out to the pad obviously, we’ll do what we can to try and test that again and make sure we’ve got everything squared away timewise so that we can minimize how much launch window we potentially have to use to meet our particular launch that day with any crew activities.”
“We want to get them involved as early and as much as possible so that when we do that big demonstration in the VAB, we have high confidence,” Kiriwas added.
Artemis II Launch Integration Campaign Currently Expected to Begin in Late 2023, Early 2024
The announcement of the flight crew for Artemis II is another indication that planning and preparations for the launch of the lunar flyby mission are well underway, but the launch is still forecast for no earlier than the end of 2024. Assembly and testing of the Artemis II flight hardware is closer to the end than the beginning, but most of the hardware still remains to be delivered to KSC by the different Orion and SLS prime contractors and turned over to EGS for launch processing.
“The Mobile Launcher is projected to be ready to start Artemis II processing in December of this year, stacking ops will occur early in the first quarter of 2024, and then our integrated operations will start around June or July of next summer leading to the targeted launch date in November 2024,” NASA EGS Program Manager Shawn Quinn said in a March 7 media teleconference.
Most or all of the SLS flight hardware is expected to be delivered to Florida sometime during the remainder of 2023. Final assembly of the Core Stage is currently expected to be completed by Boeing in the summer when it will be barged from its Michoud Assembly Facility factory in New Orleans to KSC for storage in the VAB.
The Solid Rocket Booster motor segments and exit cones are ready and waiting to be transported from their Northrop Grumman production facility in Promontory, Utah, to KSC sometime later this year. The connectors between the stages and spacecraft — the Launch Vehicle Stage Adapter and Orion Stage Adapter — are also scheduled to be delivered and turned over to EGS later this year.
The other two major elements, the Orion spacecraft itself and the ICPS second stage, are already in Florida. United Launch Alliance will turn the ICPS over to EGS closer to when the stage will be stacked next year. As it currently stands, that schedule will be driven by the progress of completing the assembly and checkout of Orion.
(Photo Caption: The Mass Simulator for Orion (MSO) is shown in a stacked configuration with an SLS Block 1 vehicle. A tanking test for the Artemis II launch vehicle is planned at Launch Pad 39B before launch, and the details are under review, but it’s possible that the MSO will stand in for Orion during the test.)
Final assembly of the Orion spacecraft had to wait until the completion of the Artemis I mission so that electronics from the Crew Module could be reused. Those devices are now installed in the Artemis II Crew Module, which is expected to be complete and ready to mate with the Service Module around mid-year.
Integrated testing and checkout of the mated Crew and Service Modules will continue into next year when Lockheed Martin turns over the completed spacecraft to EGS. In the meantime, the plan was to stack SLS on the Mobile Launcher and then roll out to Launch Pad 39B for a tanking test with an Orion mass simulator standing in for the spacecraft.
Now that Artemis II is the next launch for EGS, the launch team is reexamining their plans and objectives for the test.
“One of the things [NASA Artemis Launch Director Charlie Blackwell-Thompson] just recently asked me to do is to stand up a Tanking Test Working Group,” Bartolone said in the March 20 interview. “We’re actually getting the team together for the first time on Wednesday of this week, where we’re going to start flushing out what our high-level objectives are going to be for the tanking test.”
“It’s kind of important to note — [and] it’s actually a line that I’ll use for the team on Wednesday — there’s a lot of different types of tanking tests. We’re going from kind of a clean slate; [we’re] going to look at what [our] requirements are, what our objectives are, [and] those will define our requirements. Then, we’ll use those requirements to determine what our configuration is going to be.”
Whether to conduct the tanking test with Orion or with the passive mass simulator, the latter of which is essentially available at any time, will also be a part of reconsidering assumptions from a clean slate.
“Operationally, I think there’s some folks within our program that would like to use the mass simulator instead of the Orion spacecraft, but we’re going to let our requirements determine what the appropriate configuration is going to be for the test,” Bartolone said. “It may turn out to be that we don’t need an Orion to achieve the objectives that are defined as a team, but we won’t know that until we’ve gone through the exercise of capturing everything and making sure that we’ve uncovered all the unique things that we would want to test in that launch countdown configuration.”
The addition of the crew and the Orion crew systems to the capabilities demonstrated on Artemis I will also bring updates to Launch Commit Criteria and the launch team for Artemis II and beyond. “From a launch commit criteria perspective, absolutely, we’re adding systems, specifically to the spacecraft and the ground systems related to putting astronauts on board,” Bartolone said.
“[With] the environmental control [and life support] system (ECLSS) on Orion for Artemis II, obviously a lot of the components weren’t there for Artemis I so that’s bringing with it a whole bunch of new launch commit criteria, things that we have to validate and ensure that are performing properly before we commit a vehicle to go fly with our astronauts on board. And then, on the ground systems side, there’s a host of things to support those new ECLSS systems on the spacecraft that we also now have to ensure are functioning properly as well as emergency egress for the crew — our new slide wire capability.”
“I think there are roughly 60 additional launch commit criteria that we’re working on for Artemis II that we did not have for Artemis I,” he added.
“[In] addition [to] these new systems and personnel on board, they essentially have their own monitoring system that’s running in parallel, so they have a caution and warning system, and they have fault report monitoring that’s going to be available to them,” Pandelos noted. “So one of the other things we’re doing, we’re going back and looking at our launch commit criteria and our procedures — just ensuring that we sync that up with the way that’s going to be presented to our crew because we want to make sure that we have clear and concise communication back and forth with personnel on board the spacecraft.”
The launch team, led by the Integration Console engineers, is also reviewing the launch commit criteria in effect for Artemis I.
“We are asking the owners of the existing LCCs to go back and take another look,” Kiriwas said. “It’s one thing to base your requirements on theoretical models and analysis; now that we’ve got some performance data, we [will] go take another look.”
“Certainly [we are looking] to make sure that we got them right the first time, but also to see what we can do about launch availability, [whether] some of these requirements may have been very restrictive based on the lack of real-world grounding of those models. We’ve now got a lot better picture of the performance of the vehicle — can any of those be expanded to give us a little more room in a launch countdown to prevent some of these LCCs that we may have had to write waivers for previously.”
The launch team is also looking at whether adding the crew capability to the Orion and SLS vehicle could require additional people in the Firing Room. “There is going to be another effort that the launch director will be running to essentially revalidate the positions we have,” Kiriwas said.
“There are probably a few here and there that we might have looked at from a workload perspective and [may now] say that needs to be split or that can be combined. I think there are a few that we’re adding. The launch director has always reserved a few spots within the firing room for that future growth, but that’s going to be something coming up here in the next few months.”
Phil Weber, who was the Lead Launch Project Engineer for EGS for Artemis I and has since retired, noted: “But, the whole architecture of the launch team really isn’t on the table. The Integration Console is kind of the hub at the center of the wheel for all the technical discussions and working any problems on the anomaly loops.”
“We pull in the design center folks — whether it’s over in Firing Room 2 or Houston or Huntsville — and their support contractors around the country at their various support rooms, but the hub at the center of the wheel is the Integration Console, and we’ve demonstrated very effectively that that model works very well.”
(Lead image: The Artemis II crew in an Orion simulator at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. Credit: NASA/James Blair)