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NASA prepares 1st moonbound Orion spacecraft to receive its launch abort system

artemis 1 orion capsule
The Artemis 1 Orion capsule, seen on the right, and its launch abort system on the left, inside a NASA facility in July 2021. (Image credit: NASA)

NASA's new Orion space capsule is one step closer to returning to space, this time for a mission around the moon.

The U.S. space agency released photos of the moonbound spacecraft moving between buildings at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida as part of launch preparations for Artemis 1, which is targeting an uncrewed trip around the moon by the end of 2021.

On Saturday (July 10), Orion moved from a payload processing facility to another building where it will receive the launch abort system, and NASA's Exploration Ground Systems Twitter channel documented (opens in new tab) the journey.

In photos: The Orion space capsule: NASA's next spaceship

"These photos show @NASA_Orion arriving at and inside of the Launch Abort System Facility (LASF) at @NASAKennedy, where teams will add the launch abort system (tall & thin structure seen here) to the top of the spacecraft for the launch of @NASAArtemis I," one of the tweets (opens in new tab) stated on Monday (July 12).

Orion, which is flying for the first time since an Earth-orbiting test in 2014, will be thrust into space by NASA's unflown Space Launch System megarocket for deep-space destinations. SLS encountered several technical issues during testing in Mississippi in late 2020 and early 2021 before shipping to Florida. In June, NASA personnel stacked the SLS stages at Kennedy, and Orion is scheduled to go atop the rocket by the end of the summer. 

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Artemis 1 will be a crucial uncrewed test of the moon program ahead of expected landings by astronauts. During the flight, Orion will swing around the moon carrying sensors and simulated human bodies to measure radiation and stress levels in deep space. Its "passengers" include a "moonikin" recently named for an Apollo 13 engineer.

Following Artemis 1 will be a crewed mission around the moon called Artemis 2, perhaps as soon as 2023. A crewed landing may follow, which NASA is hoping to fly in late 2024. No astronauts have been publicly named for these missions, although a Canadian astronaut will fly around the moon on Artemis 2 as a thank-you for the country's promise to build a Canadarm3 robotic arm for the forthcoming Gateway lunar space station.

The Artemis 1 Orion capsule arriving to acquire its launch abort system at NASA's Kennedy Space Center. (Image credit: NASA)

In its $24.8 billion budget request for NASA, released in May, President Joe Biden's administration suggested a 5% increase in funding for deep-space exploration systems to $6.88 billion; this budget line includes hardware for Artemis. At the time, NASA chief financial officer Steve Shinn said the landing missions could be delayed.

"I know the goal is 2024, but I think we have to be brutally realistic," Shinn said in a news conference when the budget proposal was released. "Because space development is so hard, there could be delays to that schedule for the first demonstration flight of landing humans [on the moon] and returning them safely to Earth." 

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell, Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022. She was contributing writer for Space.com (opens in new tab) for 10 years before that, since 2012. As a proud Trekkie and Canadian, she also tackles topics like diversity, science fiction, astronomy and gaming to help others explore the universe. Elizabeth's on-site reporting includes two human spaceflight launches from Kazakhstan, three space shuttle missions in Florida, and embedded reporting from a simulated Mars mission in Utah. She holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, and a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science since 2015. Her latest book, Leadership Moments from NASA, is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday.