May 24, 2024


As NASA prepares to send astronauts to the Moon as part of the upcoming Artemis 2 mission, the space agency still needs to resolve a few lingering issues with its Orion capsule that could jeopardize the safety of the crew on board, according to a new report.

The NASA Office of Inspector General (OIG) released a report on Wednesday that assessed the space agency’s readiness to launch a crew on board the Orion spacecraft in September 2025. The report examined anomalies with the spacecraft’s heat shield and other hardware components, all of which were discovered after the uncrewed Artemis 1 mission in late 2022.

“The Artemis I test flight revealed critical issues that need to be addressed before placing crew on the Artemis II mission,” the report read. “In particular, 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 most significant issue has to do with Orion’s heat shield. We’ve covered this issue before, but it’s really becoming a big headache for the space agency. During Orion’s reentry through Earth’s atmosphere, the spacecraft traveled at speeds reaching 24,600 miles per hour (39,590 kilometers per hour) and its heat shield endured temperatures above 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s the fastest speed at which any crew-rated spacecraft has returned to Earth.

Although NASA engineers had anticipated that some charring would occur, the report revealed that the space agency identified more than 100 locations where protective material from Orion’s heat shield chipped away unexpectedly during its reentry.

Orion’s heat shield endured some unexpected damage during Artemis 1.

Orion’s heat shield endured some unexpected damage during Artemis 1.
Image: NASA Office of Inspector General

“Portions of the char layer wore away differently than NASA engineers predicted, cracking and breaking off the spacecraft in fragments that created a trail of debris rather than melting away as designed,” the report read. The inspector general added that the heat shield’s performance creates “a risk that the heat shield may not sufficiently protect the capsule’s systems and crew from the extreme heat of reentry on future missions.”

NASA is working to resolve the issue either by replacing heat shield components or altering Orion’s reentry trajectory. In late 2023, the space agency stated that it expects a resolution to the heat shield issue by late spring of this year.

The report also addressed an issue with the crew capsule’s separation bolts, which revealed “unexpected melting and erosion that created a gap leading to increased heating inside the bolt.” NASA mitigated the issue by making minor modifications to the separation bolt design and adding additional thermal protective barrier material in the bolt gap.

Following Artemis 1, NASA also recorded 24 instances of power distribution anomalies in Orion’s Electrical Power System. NASA determined that the power distribution issue was caused by radiation and is developing software changes for the Artemis 2 mission. The report, however, warns that “without a permanent hardware fix, there is increased risk that further power distribution anomalies could lead to a loss of redundancy, inadequate power, and potential loss of vehicle propulsion and pressurization.”

NASA wasn’t too happy about the inspector general’s audit, writing a rather snappy response to reassure that the space agency is already addressing the recommendations cited in the report. “Being audited in the middle of a development process presents several challenges including disruptions to ongoing workflow and priorities,” the space agency wrote. “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.”

Okay, we hear you. NASA has seemingly got this under control.

Want to know more about humanity’s next giant leap in space? Check out our full coverage of NASA’s Artemis Moon program, the new Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and Orion spacecraft, the recently concluded Artemis 1 mission around the Moon, the four-person Artemis 2 crew, NASA and Axiom’s Artemis Moon suit, and the upcoming lunar Gateway space station. And for more spaceflight in your life, follow us on X and bookmark Gizmodo’s dedicated Spaceflight page.

A version of this article originally appeared on Gizmodo.



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