NASA Perseveres Through COVID-19 Pandemic – Here’s What’s Ahead in 2020, 2021

Artemis I Booster Segments

Exploration Ground System teams are processing the Artemis I booster segments and preparing to stack them with forward and aft assemblies at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The Space Launch System (SLS) rocket booster segments arrived on June 15 by trains traveling from Utah near Northrop Grumman’s facility where they were manufactured. Northrop Grumman has already produced the booster segments for the Artemis II mission and is in the process of manufacturing the rocket motors for the Artemis III. The SLS twin solid rocket boosters provide more than 75 percent of the power to launch the rocket on the Artemis missions to the Moon. Credit: NASA

With 2020 more than half way through, NASA is gearing up for a busy rest of the year and 2021.

Following the recent successful launch of a Mars rover and safely bringing home astronauts from low-Earth orbit aboard a new commercial spacecraft, NASA is looking forward to more exploration firsts now through 2021. The agency is sending the first woman and next man to the Moon in 2024, establishing sustainable exploration by the end of the decade as part of the Artemis program while getting ready for human exploration of Mars.

Human Landing System

Artist concept of Human Landing System and astronauts on the surface of the Moon. Credit: NASA

“By putting the health and safety of the NASA team first, we’ve been able to safely navigate the challenges of COVID-19 and keep our missions moving forward as much as possible,” said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine. “We will hit several key milestones for Artemis this year, including conducting a major test of our Space Launch System (SLS) rocket. We also plan to grab an asteroid sample and launch an ocean studying satellite to name a few missions ahead. These stunning NASA achievements have been made possible thanks to strong commitments from the President and Congress to fund and support NASA budgets and ushered in a new era of exploration for America’s space agency.”

SpaceX Crew-1

SpaceX Crew-1. Credits: NASA

2020 Perseveres

Among the activities the agency has for the rest of 2020, NASA’s SpaceX Crew-1 mission is targeted for launch from the agency’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida to the International Space Station this fall, following certification of the system by NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. The mission will be the first in a series of regular, rotational flights with astronauts to the orbital laboratory as it marks 20 years of continuous human presence aboard the station Nov. 2. Flying four crew members on Crew-1 will expand the station’s crew to seven, effectively doubling the amount of time for crew members to support research investigations that advance scientific knowledge and prepare for human exploration farther into space. Boeing also is on deck to conduct a second uncrewed flight test for the Commercial Crew Program, before flying a crewed flight test in 2021 to meet program certification requirements. This is an important step in ensuring multiple providers are providing access to the space station from American soil.

In the America’s first asteroid sample return mission, NASA’s OSIRIS-REx will do a touch, grab, and go move on Bennu in October to collect a small sample to return to Earth.

NASA also continues to make significant progress toward the first uncrewed flight test of SLS and the Orion spacecraft and plans to conduct a hot fire test by November. This critical milestone known as the Green Run, includes firing up the rocket’s massive core stage and four RS-25 engines in a test stand. Stacking operations will begin with the solid rocket boosters on the mobile launcher in the late fall after the hot fire and will continue into 2021 when the core stage arrives. Engineers are putting finishing touches on Orion so it will be ready for attachment, making us one step closer to sending astronauts to walk on the Moon.

NASA also will test a suite of lander technologies aboard a commercial spaceflight mission. As the main experiment of the rocket, the technologies tested will support safer and more accurate future landings on the Moon.

Finally, the agency is also expected to launch the Sentinel-6 Michael Freilich satellite in November, which will collect the most accurate data yet on sea levels.

2021 to Bring More Firsts

Next year is shaping up to be one of NASA’s busiest yet.

Following an initial design phase, NASA is expected to announce whether Blue Origin, Dynetics and/or SpaceX are moving forward with their human landing systems, one of which will be the first private company to safely land American astronauts on the Moon in 2024.

NASA First Planetary Defense Mission Target

Illustration of NASA’s DART spacecraft and the Italian Space Agency’s (ASI) LICIACube prior to impact at the Didymos binary system. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Steve Gribben

When NASA’s Perseverance rover lands on Mars in February, the robot astrobiologist / geologist will search for signs of ancient life and collect rock and soil samples. As part of the mission, NASA will deploy the Ingenuity helicopter from the rover in the first demonstration of rotorcraft on another planet. The agency also will attempt to produce oxygen from the Martian atmosphere – a critical step for future human exploration of the Red Planet.

In late July, NASA will launch the first test for planetary defense. The Double Asteroid Redirection Test, about the size of a small car, will deliberately crash into an asteroid moon in fall 2022 to change its motion. This is just a test, as the asteroid Didymos nor its targeted moon Dimorphos, pose any threat to our planet. 

NASA will ship the SLS core stage to Kennedy early in the year for integration with the Orion spacecraft. Artemis I, the first uncrewed flight test of SLS and Orion, is on track to launch on its month-long mission around the Moon by fall. The Orion crew module for Artemis III will be delivered to Kennedy, where the crew module for Artemis II is already undergoing preparations for its mission. 

NASA X-57 Maxwell

NASA engineers put the X-57 Maxwell, NASA’s first all-electric X-plane, through its initial telemetry tests at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center in California, testing the aircraft’s ability to transmit data to teams on the ground. Credit: NASA/Ken Ulbrich

Astrobotic and Intuitive Machines will each launch their first Commercial Lunar Payload Services flights to the Moon in the fall, delivering a suite of payloads to the lunar surface ahead of future Artemis missions with crew. This will be the first American robotic missions to land on the Moon in 50 years.

In October, NASA will launch Lucy as the first mission to study the Trojan asteroids – remnants of ancient material that formed the outer planets, now orbiting the Sun at the distance of Jupiter. By the end of that month NASA will launch the James Webb Space Telescope, the flagship astrophysics mission exploring distant worlds and studying the first generation of galaxies formed at the beginning of the universe.

In 2021, NASA aeronautics teams will complete construction and prepare for the first flight of the X-59 QueSST, our low-boom supersonic X plane that will provide data that could lead to faster long-distance travel throughout the world. The X-57 Maxwell, the agency’s first all-electric experimental aircraft, will also conduct its first flight next year. The agency’s aero researchers also will launch an effort to advance electric propulsion for large commercial transports with an electric powertrain flight demonstration, helping to develop a fuel- and cost-efficient alternative to traditional jet-engine-powered aircraft.

Also next year, NASA will announce a new class of astronaut candidates, launch a new laser communications demonstration, and send a microwave oven-sized CubeSat to a unique, elliptical lunar orbit where the agency plans to send the Artemis’ Gateway outpost.

“With our rover landing on Mars, an asteroid protection space test, the Webb telescope launch, and the Artemis I mission among other activities on the horizon, we have another big, big year ahead for America’s space agency,” said Bridenstine.

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