NASA Stennis Director: Orion Splashdown Worth Celebrating

Nasa Moonshot
In this photo provided by NASA, the Orion spacecraft for the Artemis I mission splashes down in the Pacific Ocean after a 25.5 day mission to the Moon, Sunday, Dec. 11, 2022. (NASA via AP)

The following is an op-ed by Dr. Rick Gilbrech, director of NASA’s Stennis Space Center, regarding the splashdown of NASA’s Orion spacecraft and its Artemis Program. 

STENNIS SPACE CENTER, Miss. — Splashdown and recovery of NASA’s un-crewed Orion spacecraft in the Pacific Ocean on Dec. 11 concluded a successful Artemis I maiden mission and set the stage for the agency to move ahead in its effort to explore the secrets of the universe for the benefit of all.

Orion’s successful re-entry from space and splashdown off the coast of California was shared by so many who contributed to Artemis I and puts the nation on track for human deep space missions to come. The Artemis I test flight is the first in a series of increasingly complex missions paving the way for humans to return to the Moon and eventually travel to Mars.

The return of Orion was particularly momentous for everyone at NASA’s Stennis Space Center near Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, and even more so for one of our own employees on the recovery ship to operate a camera system tracking the capsule from re-entry all the way to splashdown. Just as companies across the nation worked together to make the Artemis I mission possible, the diverse and inclusive team at Stennis pulled together to test the propulsion systems and engines that helped launch the first mission of the Artemis generation.

Indeed, as the nation’s largest propulsion test center, NASA Stennis has a long history of frontline work to help power the U.S. human space exploration program.

The site initially was built to test rocket stages that launched the first humans to the Moon in 1969 during the Apollo Program. In like fashion, the center tested the RS-25 engines and Space Launch System (SLS) core stage that sent the Orion spacecraft on its recent trip around the Moon.

SLS is the most powerful rocket ever assembled and the only one capable of sending Orion, astronauts, and cargo directly to the Moon on a single mission. It is powered by two solid rocket boosters and a core stage with four RS-25 engines.

RS-25 engines for the first four SLS missions are former space shuttle main engines modified to provide additional power. NASA Stennis conducted several series of hot fire tests to help guide modification of the engines and validate the various changes.

In addition, NASA Stennis conducted a historic Green Run test series of the first SLS core stage, concluding with a historic hot fire of the stage’s four RS-25 engines in March 2021, just as during the actual launch. It marked the most powerful propulsion test at NASA Stennis in more than 40 years and set the stage for the Artemis I launch last month.

Even as we celebrate the success of that mission, NASA Stennis is continuing its frontline work. The path to deep space will continue directly through Mississippi as the center tests new RS-25 engines, as well as the Exploration Upper Stage that will provide SLS with even more power and capability.

The nation now is set to return humans, including the first woman and the first person of color, to the Moon and to prepare for journeys to Mars. Both are daunting missions, with the Moon more than 235,000 miles away from Earth and Mars, on average, some 140 million miles.

Yet, with the Dec. 11 splashdown of Orion and the continued contributions of the dedicated NASA Stennis team, I have never felt more optimistic that both are within our reach.

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