Artemis I will launch from Kennedy Space Center into Earth orbit, where it will travel 40,000 miles beyond the Moon, or a total of about 280,000 miles from Earth, before returning home. During this flight, the spacecraft will launch aboard the Space Launch System (SLS) — the most powerful rocket in the world — and fly farther than any spacecraft built for humans has ever flown. Orion will stay in space longer than any ship for astronauts has done without docking to a space station and return home faster than ever before.

This crucial flight test will demonstrate the performance of the SLS rocket on its maiden flight. After about three weeks and a total distance traveled exceeding 1.3 million miles, the mission will end with a test of Orion’s capability to return safely to Earth as the spacecraft makes a precision landing within eyesight of the recovery ship off the coast of Baja, CA.

Orion returns on Earth reentry at 24,500 miles per hour. The high-speed lunar velocity reentry is the top mission priority and a necessary test of the heat shield’s performance as it enters Earth’s atmosphere, heating to nearly 5,000 °F — about half as hot as the surface of the Sun.

For this uncrewed configuration, engineering equipment will fly in place of astronaut-essential elements. Instead of the cockpit displays, controls, and life support systems that will fly on the first crewed flight, this first flight will carry the data-gathering tools needed to validate performance and compare predictive models with actual flight data.

This mission will also deploy 13 CubeSats to conduct new scientific investigations and new technology demonstrations that will improve our knowledge of the deep space environment, while engaging a broader set of universities, international partners, and private companies in lunar exploration than ever before on a single mission.

Preparing for a Crew

Housed within the Orion stage adapter, CubeSats are roughly the size of a large shoe box and weigh no more than 30 pounds. Despite their small size, they enable science and technology experiments that may expand our knowledge of the Moon and demonstrate new technologies that could be used on future missions. (NASA/Cory Huston)

When Artemis I launches, a suited manikin will be aboard outfitted with sensors to provide data on what crew-members may experience in flight. As part of the uncrewed Artemis I flight test, NASA is seeking to learn how best to protect astronauts for Artemis II, the first mission with crew.

The manikin flying on Artemis I will occupy the commander’s seat inside Orion, be equipped with two radiation sensors, and wear a first-generation Orion Crew Survival System suit — a spacesuit astronauts will wear during launch, entry, and other dynamic phases of their missions.

The manikin’s seat will be outfitted with two sensors — one under the headrest and another behind the seat — to record acceleration and vibration throughout the mission. The seats are positioned in a recumbent, or laid-back, position with elevated feet to help maintain blood flow to the head during ascent and entry. The position also reduces the chance of injury by allowing the head and feet to be held into position during launch and landing, and by distributing forces across the entire torso during high acceleration and deceleration periods such as splashdown.

The crew is expected to experience 2.5 times the force of gravity during ascent and four times the force of gravity at two different points during the planned re-entry profile. “Some data collected from Artemis I will be used for Orion crew simulations and to verify crew safety by comparing flight vibration and acceleration against pre-flight predictions, then making model refinements as necessary,” said Dr. Mark Baldwin, Orion’s occupant protection specialist for lead contractor Lock-heed Martin.

Teams at Kennedy Space Center participate in the first joint integrated launch countdown simulation for Artemis I. The training exercise rehearses all aspects of the launch countdown, from cryogenic loading of the SLS rocket core stage to liftoff. (NASA/Ben Smegelsky)

Five additional accelerometers inside Orion will provide data for comparing vibration and acceleration between the upper and lower seats. As Orion splashes down in the Pacific Ocean, all accelerometers will measure impact on these seat locations for comparison to data from water impact tests at NASA’s Langley Research Center to verify accuracy of pre-flight models.

“It’s critical for us to get data from the Artemis I manikin to ensure all of the newly designed systems, coupled with an energy dampening system that the seats are mounted on, integrate together and provide the protection crewmembers will need in preparation for our first crewed mission on Artemis II,” said Jason Hutt, NASA lead for Orion Crew Systems Integration.

This same manikin was previously used in Orion vibration tests, both at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston and Kennedy Space Center in Florida, to verify it was an accurate physical representation for testing on Artemis I, to qualify the Orion seat for Artemis missions, and to determine if the crew displays will be readable during launch and climb to orbit.

At NASA’s Langley Research Center, crash-test dummies are outfitted with suits and sensors and then secured in an Orion test article before being dropped into the Hydro Impact Basin. The drop tests help engineers assess and mitigate potential injuries to crew from splashdown. (NASA)

Tests that risk injuring human subjects are demonstrated with a manikin before bringing in crewmembers such as crew module uprighting system evaluations intended to ensure the spacecraft is right-side up after splashdown. The tests determine if astronauts can safely get out of their seats in the event that they were stuck upside-down in the water.

Similar to manikins, NASA uses Anthropometric Test Devices (“crash-test dummies”) that are equipped with various instruments for other crew safety evaluations. Dummies are used in tests that drop a version of Orion from an aircraft to verify the Artemis II seat and suit can limit the risk of head and neck injury during the most severe acceleration environments: abort and landing.

Also along for the journey during Artemis I will be two other occupants — identical phantom torsos named Helga and Zohar — that will occupy the lower two seats on Orion. They will be part of a study designed to measure the amount of space radiation astronauts may experience inside Orion during missions to the Moon and to assess a radiation-shielding vest called AstroRad that may reduce exposure. The vest is currently being evaluated by astronauts on the International Space Station for fit and function.

Each of these purposeful passengers aboard Orion inform astronaut working conditions and safety, helping NASA and its partners better prepare for — and minimize — the potentially harmful effects from deep space missions for space travel farther from Earth, and longer in duration, than ever before.

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This article first appeared in the November, 2021 issue of Tech Briefs Magazine.

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