Orion prime contractor Lockheed Martin has the spacecraft for NASA’s Artemis III and IV lunar landing missions in production alongside the Artemis II vehicle that is going into final assembly at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida. Simultaneous assembly and test of three Orions is becoming the norm, as the Orion program works towards its goal of delivering one spacecraft every year for eventual, annual Artemis missions.
Following the Artemis II lunar flyby test flight, the Artemis III Orion will be the first to demonstrate full rendezvous and docking operations when it meets up with SpaceX’s Starship lunar lander in cislunar space during the mission. NASA still aspires to fly Artemis III as soon as December 2025, and the space agency continues to stress delivery dates for not just Artemis III, but also for the Artemis IV Orion to follow as close behind as possible.
Artemis III Orion first build under production and operations contract
Lockheed Martin builds the crew module (CM) and crew module adapter (CMA) elements of NASA’s Orion spacecraft in the Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout (O&C) Building at KSC; the industrial operations zone (IOZ) in the building is also where final assembly of the CM and CMA with the European Service Module (ESM) occurs. While that final assembly, test, and checkout of the Orion for Artemis II is going on at one end of the IOZ floor, hardware for the next two spacecraft are also being assembled simultaneously.
The Orion program is aiming to have the spacecraft for Artemis III ready for delivery about a year after they turn the Artemis II Orion over to Exploration Ground Systems (EGS) next spring. “[For] Artemis III, there are several things driving [production],” Debbie Korth, Orion Deputy Program Manager for NASA, said during a Aug. 8 media event at KSC.
“The docking system is certainly one of them [and] we have some ECLSS (environmental control and life support system) components coming from one of our subs (subcontractors). A lot of hardware has to get integrated, and then the European Service Module for Artemis III is set to be delivered by the end of this year.”
(Photo Caption: The Artemis III Orion crew module at KSC on Aug. 8; Lockheed Martin is planning to complete assembly of the module next year and deliver the entire spacecraft for launch preparations in the spring of 2025.)
At a very high level, assembly starts with the structure of the spacecraft. After the primary and secondary structure is assembled, then tubing is welded in a “clean room” area, connecting up plumbing for fluids and propellant. Then wiring harnesses are laid out and connected on the inside and outside of the vehicle, followed by installation of spaceflight equipment, and finally testing and checkout.
As seen on the floor of the IOZ during the early August media event, the CM and CMA for Artemis III have completed structural assembly and are progressing through tube welding as the parts for the tubing are delivered to KSC. Once all the tubing is welded into place, the welds will be proof tested.
“The ideal flow would be [to] have everything here, get it all installed, go in the clean room one time, [and then] do the proof and pressure [test], but it never works out that way,” Korth said. “What they end up doing is as they get components in, they install them, and then they’ll go in and out of the clean room.”
“We do not have all the components in the factory yet for Artemis III, there’s still several dozen that they’re waiting on. Those guys that run the production floor, they keep track of the thousands of components as they’re coming in and resequence things [and] if we’re waiting on something, go do something else.”
“They’re going to install things as they get them and they move the vehicle around between the stations, whether that’s clean room or the other areas,” she explained. “Once components get here, things can go really quickly, I think the Lockheed assembly team they’re very good about rescheduling and resequencing and keeping the vehicle moving.”
The CMA is in a similar situation, it is waiting for a few more tubes to come in for final standalone welding work. “They still have to put some components in it, they still have to build it out, but once the ESM arrives here it’s about three to four months after that when they put them together,” Douglas Lenhardt, NASA Supply Chain Lead for Orion at KSC, said.
The Orion spacecraft for the Artemis III lunar landing mission will be the first to have full rendezvous, proximity operations, and docking (RPOD) capabilities. The Artemis II crew will manually pilot their spacecraft during a proximity operations and handling qualities demonstration on the first day of the mission, but the Artemis III vehicle will have fully automated RPOD software and hardware to link up with SpaceX’s Starship HLS lunar lander in cislunar space.
Korth said that NASA is currently expecting the docking adapter to be delivered to KSC in January. The docking adapter will attach to the front of the crew module and will be jettisoned at the end of the mission. “It’s jettisoned before re-entry, so we don’t bring it back. It’s packed on top of the forward bay cover.”
Lockheed Martin and NASA are still evaluating where in the pre-launch production flow to install the docking adapter. “It is one of the last things that goes on and we’re looking right now at whether or not we can have that installed when we’re in the LASF (Launch Abort System Facility), so kind of playing with the installation sequence to see where that’s most advantageous, but that is one of the last items that goes on.”
After the spacecraft is delivered to EGS, it is moved to the Multi-Payload Processing Facility (MPPF) where commodities like propellant for the spacecraft engines and thrusters and oxygen and water for crew life support are loaded for flight; the spacecraft is then moved to LASF, where the Launch Abort System rocket-and-tower assembly is stacked on top of the crew module. The LASF is the last stop for the spacecraft before it is placed on top of its Space Launch System (SLS) launch vehicle in the Vehicle Assembly Building.
The ESM for Artemis III is a little farther along in its production in Germany. “ESM-3 is currently undergoing final integration steps at our integration facility at Airbus in Bremen, we are finishing the welding for the propulsion part, we are starting to do some testing; at this very moment we are doing the electrical checkouts,” Kai Bergemann, European Service Module Deputy Programme Manager for Airbus, said at the Aug. 8 media event. “We are still on-track for delivery at the end of the year.”
The ESM has the main storage tanks for the multi-week long Orion missions, storing the commodities that are loaded in the MPPF like propellant and oxygen and water. “Those [storage tanks] are all installed, we have all the equipment installed, we just need to finalize some welding on some of the tubes on the propulsion side, but other than that the hardware, the big items, are all integrated,” Bergemann noted.
“Even the large propellant tanks have been integrated some weeks ago, which is a major milestone for us in the progress of that integration, and so now it’s about testing, it’s really about optimizing the test sequence in order to meet the delivery date here.”
(Photo Caption: The Orion crew module adapter for Artemis III is temporarily stored for the Aug. 8 media event. Standalone assembly is expected to be completed by the end of the year, which is when ESM-3 is expected to arrive in Florida. The two elements will be mated to become the service module next year.)
As noted, a few months after the ESM arrives in Florida, the CMA and ESM should be ready to mate together to form the service module (SM) for Artemis III. Right now, that would be in the spring 2024 timeframe around the same time that the Artemis II spacecraft is delivered for launch preparations.
Following the mating of the CMA and ESM, the next major milestone for the service module would be initial power-on or IPO, which is the start of the testing and checkout phase for the module. Right now, Orion projects both the crew module and the service module to be ready for their initial power-up in that spring 2024 timeframe.
Each module will go through a series of standalone thermal and acoustic tests; the nozzle for Orion’s main engine would also be installed on the ESM, along with the Spacecraft Adapter that helps join Orion with SLS.
Following standalone testing and checkout, the schedule has the crew and service modules ready to be mated beginning in the fall of 2024. Another round of integrated testing, including a vacuum test in the IOZ, would need to be completed before the solar array wings would be attached and the spacecraft delivered to EGS for Artemis III launch preparations.
Currently, the Orion program’s production goal is to deliver the Artemis III spacecraft to EGS in the spring of 2025, about a year after the Artemis II spacecraft delivery in late April 2024, which would support NASA’s aspirational December 2025 date of launching Orion on an SLS rocket to begin Artemis III and the first mission to land astronauts on the Moon in over 50 years.
Orion looks to block buy of parts to establish delivery cadence, close in on annual goal
The Artemis IV Orion crew module and crew module adapter are also taking shape in the IOZ next to spacecraft it will follow. Structural assembly is still in progress for both elements; the pressure vessel at the center of the crew module was delivered from the Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans to KSC in February.
Kaileah Blazek, Mechanical Systems Integration & Test Engineer for Lockheed Martin, said at the Aug.8 media event that the crew module structure had just recently completed its proof pressure test. “We just finished last week,” she said.
“We have about a week worth of test setup and integration, where we actually connect 700 [strain gauge] sensors, and then about a week for the actual test, between performing the test and data review. We do a few runs; we do a max design pressure run and then do the actual full proof pressure run.”
Blazek noted that the maximum pressure test is short; the crew module structure is pressurized to one and a half times its maximum design pressure for less than a minute.
The remainder of the secondary structure will now be installed on the crew module, mostly brackets. “It’s just now getting secondary structure,” Korth said. “I think the guys on the floor call it ‘death by bracket’ because it’s just bracket after bracket after bracket after bracket, it’s somewhere pretty early in the flow.”
Structural assembly of the Artemis IV crew module adapter is also well underway down the IOZ hallway, with longerons and intermediate frames radially attached to the CMA inner ring.
Both Artemis IV structures will proceed into the clean room in 2024 to begin tube welding, and the Orion program team is hoping that the acquisition strategy under the Orion Production and Operations Contract (OPOC) will allow progress to be made towards the long-term production goal of delivering one spacecraft every year for eventual Artemis missions to the Moon every year. At the time the OPOC award was announced in late 2019, the Artemis III, IV, and V vehicles were ordered as a set, so the components for Artemis III that are trailing the production schedule should be delivered with the same parts for Artemis IV and V.
“Our components for Artemis III, IV, and V [are] ordered in lots,” Korth explained. “When Lockheed was put on contract for Artemis III, IV, and V, they [began] buying things in bulk, so while [Artemis] III may be a challenge as we’re waiting for components to come in and have to rework schedules, when we get III, we largely get IV and V as well, because they’re coming in as a set.”
“So, I think these schedule challenges get a little bit easier going forward because we’re getting ahead of getting that hardware into the factory, and once it’s there, there’s a lot more flexibility on the schedule. When you’re waiting on something, you’re at the mercy of the [component schedule].”
(Photo Caption: The Artemis IV Orion crew module adapter in structural assembly. The structure will eventually be outfitted with fluid lines, electrical wiring, and avionics before being mated to ESM-4.)
In terms of reaching the annual delivery goal in the future, Korth also noted that “there are things like ESMs that need to be delivered on once-a-year centers as well to make that happen,” since the European Service Module contracts are aligned along different builds.
The onset of the global COVID-19 pandemic shortly after the OPOC award and the subsequent supply chain disruption was an additional complication; although the industry and supplier base has recovered significantly, those COVID supply chain effects are still being felt. “I think the supply chain has drastically improved in the last few months, but it is still our biggest challenge,” Korth said.
“In a lot of cases [we are buying] very unique hardware and, you know, we talk about this ‘robust space economy’ that’s being energized and developed, [but] there’s only so many companies that can build environmental control and life systems hardware, or spacesuits or prop systems. Valves is a huge thing; you’re limited by the people who can actually build this kind of hardware and there’s a lot of demand on them right now.”
“It’s getting better, but it’s still a challenge,” she added.
Even with uncertainty about the schedule for Artemis III and other factors that will limit Artemis missions through the 2020s, NASA wants to keep its options open and officials within the Exploration Systems Development Mission Directorate (ESDMD) have stressed to their programs and contractors to continue working towards long-established “need” dates for deliveries. “The message that we’re trying to take forward is please work to your commitment or your contract dates…until we have to change that with a contract change,” ESDMD Associate Administrator Jim Free said in a briefing to the NASA Advisory Council in May.
“Missions are going to continue to move around and if all we do is move missions around everybody is going to get out of sync. We don’t want to do that anymore; we want to deliver.”
“If we have to put things in storage, we’ll put things in storage,” Free added in May.
“We have a lot of direct interaction with [subcontractors], which I think is really helpful, explaining [our schedules],” Korth noted in August. “Some people think ‘why do you need it so early, [for] Artemis III we don’t know when it’s going to fly?'”
“But we are on a cadence of delivering vehicles and we need to get them done because dragging our team along doesn’t help us if we’re waiting on hardware.”
Similarly, to NASA and Lockheed’s production goal, the European Space Agency and Airbus are working towards delivering ESMs on an annual cadence. “ESM-4 is pretty much one year after ESM-3, so [with ESM-4] we are in the middle of harness integration,” Bergemann said.
“Typically we start with the structure, when we receive the structure we do primary/secondary structure integration, bracket integration, which is followed by harness integration, and the integration of the first propellant tubes, so this is currently ongoing for ESM-4.”
Currently, the Orion program is targeting delivery of the Artemis IV spacecraft to EGS in early 2026. Right now NASA schedules put launch of Artemis IV no earlier than September 2028. In support of that early 2026 delivery date, initial power-on of the crew module would be in late 2024, with the service module IPO following in early 2025.
That would lead to mating of the crew module to the service module in the summer of 2025, followed by final testing through the end of 2025 ahead of delivery to EGS in early 2026.
Orion factoring Artemis I recovery data, experiences into evolving reusability plans
NASA and Lockheed Martin have plans to reuse returning crew modules and crew module hardware extensively beginning with the Artemis III spacecraft; as the program transitions from development into a production and operations phase, those plans are being refined. “Reuse is definitely a work in progress on how it’s going to play out,” Korth said.
“That plan is evolving and a lot of it has to do with [what] we learned off Artemis I when we got the spacecraft back, [such as] how long it takes to decontaminate and get that module itself to a point where you could actually install new components on it, so ripping everything off that you can’t reuse.”
She gave an example: “Things like you splashdown in the ocean and saltwater. We found on Artemis 1 when they took off the [backshell] panels you see salt crystals everywhere, so we’ve got to start talking about corrosion resistance and what kind of coatings are we going to put on things so we can reuse them.”
“You’re just learning as you go along, but [reuse is] definitely a priority for the program and I think it’s the right answer, it’s just doing the work to enable all that to happen.”
(Photo Caption: The Artemis I crew module during post-splashdown recovery operations in the Pacific Ocean last Dec. 11. NASA and Lockheed Martin are studying ways to protect equipment that is soaked in saltwater after splashdown to improve the reusability of the spacecraft and its components.)
In addition to the electronics that were removed from the Artemis I spacecraft as soon as possible to be refurbished for installation on the Artemis II spacecraft early in 2023, Orion is looking at the condition of the spacecraft and the other equipment that came back from the program’s first mission to the Moon and back, and how long it will take to refurbish them and turn them around for a next flight.
“We learned more about the timeline to do that, and then we’ve learned more about when you do take a component out that requires a [subcontractor] to rework,” Korth explained. “Lockheed has started working those contracts with those subs and what we may have estimated it being six or eight weeks could be six or eight months.”
“And so you’re looking at maybe I can’t use that item from [Artemis] III to [Artemis] VI, I need to use it from III to VII, so then what do I do on [Artemis] VI? The reuse plan is definitely evolving as we learn more from our suppliers what they can do [and] learn more about what we can do in terms of processing the spacecraft here at Kennedy, [with] the biggest thing being cleaning out [propellant].”
“Prop is a big deal and there’s only a couple of facilities you can do that in, and one of them is not the O&C right now,” Korth added. “If we want to get back into the factory we’ve got to work that.”
The naming conventions for reuse are also evolving with the plans. “We got rid of the monikers of ‘light and heavy’ and we call [it] ‘component and module’ [reuse],” Korth noted.
(Lead image: Left to right, the Orion crew modules for Artemis III, IV, and II are seen in their Florida production building on June 22. Credit: NASA/Marie Reed.)