NASA’s Orion Capsule Heat Shield Wore Away in More Than 100 Places During 2022 Test Flight, Posing ‘Significant Risks’

A new report highlights safety issues that NASA must address before using the spacecraft to send astronauts to the moon, and the agency is already working on fixing the problems

Three boats tug the Orion spacecraft in the ocean
The U.S. Navy works to recover the Orion spacecraft following its 2022 test flight to the moon. NASA / Josh Valcarcel

NASA’s Orion spacecraft, intended to carry astronauts to the moon in the next couple of years, experienced a number of issues during its 2022 uncrewed test flight, the agency’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) said in a report released Wednesday.

“The test flight revealed anomalies with the Orion heat shield, separation bolts and power distribution that pose significant risks to the safety of the crew,” the report states. And in regards to the heat shield problem, “should the same issue occur on future Artemis missions, it could lead to the loss of the vehicle or crew.”

The inspector general recommends a number of steps the agency should take before the first flight with astronauts, scheduled for no sooner than September of next year. NASA agreed with the proposed actions, and in a statement accompanying the report, the agency says it has already been working on the issues identified.

“NASA is concerned that the report’s tone might suggest that the OIG identified the risks discussed, when in fact, all recommendations were already being addressed by NASA through forward risk-based disposition prior to the audit,” Catherine Koerner, NASA associate administrator for exploration systems development, writes in the statement.

The Orion capsule launched to space on November 16, 2022, as part of NASA’s Artemis 1 mission, the first in a series of missions intended to eventually land humans on the moon’s surface. During the 25.5-day flight, the uncrewed vehicle orbited the moon, performed two lunar flybys and returned to Earth, splashing down in the Pacific Ocean on December 11.

Artemis 2 will carry astronauts around the moon on a ten-day flight, while Artemis 3 will bring astronauts near the lunar south pole for the first time. But in January, NASA announced that both missions would be delayed, with launch dates no sooner than September 2025 and September 2026.

NASA cited the need to ensure crew safety as the primary reason for the delays, and the agency said in January that engineers were working to address issues with a battery and with circuitry necessary for temperature control and air ventilation in the crew capsule.

The new report from the inspector general highlights the problems with Orion’s heat shield. NASA found that protective “char layer” material from the heat shield wore away unexpectedly during reentry in more than 100 locations, according to the report. The material cracked and broke off the spacecraft in pieces, creating a trail of debris, instead of melting away as it was supposed to.

“It’s not what we were expecting, with some pieces of that char to be liberated from the vehicle,” Amit Kshatriya, NASA’s Moon to Mars program’s deputy associate administrator, said during a January teleconference announcing the Artemis delays, per’s Brett Tingley.

The spacecraft heats up to 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit during reentry—about half as hot as the surface of the sun. The chipping away of material could mean the crew and Orion spacecraft aren’t adequately protected from this heat. And the flying debris could also damage the capsule’s parachutes, the report states.

Kshatriya said at an April 26 NASA meeting that understanding the heat shield performance was the biggest risk for Artemis 2, per Space News’ Jeff Foust. NASA is conducting experiments that seek to re-create the char loss from the heat shield. “We’re getting close to the final answer in terms of that cause,” Kshatriya said at the meeting.

Some bolts on Orion also unexpectedly melted and eroded. NASA has made small changes to the bolt design in advance of Artemis 2. But the bolts’ performance is dependent on how NASA addresses the heat shield issue, the report notes.

Other problems included power distribution anomalies in the spacecraft’s electrical power system, which NASA has attributed to radiation and is making software changes to address.

The launch of the spacecraft also caused more damage than expected to the mobile launcher, the ground system used to assemble and launch the spacecraft. Elevators, electrical equipment, tubing and other structures incurred damages costing $26 million to fix—more than five times the $5 million NASA had set aside for repairs.

“The Artemis 1 test flight revealed critical issues that need to be addressed before placing crew on the Artemis 2 mission,” the report states.

When announcing delays of the Artemis 2 and Artemis 3 missions, agency officials noted they would not rush the Artemis 2 launch, writes the Washington Post’s Christian Davenport.

NASA administrator Bill Nelson recently told a congressional committee that the agency still thinks they can land a human on the moon by late 2026, per the publication.

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