The report card for NASA's Artemis 1 mission is in, and it's a definite pass. The Orion spacecraft that orbited the moon as part of the unmanned 25-day, 1.4 million-mile mission last fall performed better than expected on its second test flight and its first into deep space, officials said on a Tuesday teleconference call, per Space.com. There was a hiccup on reentry, however, as Orion's heat shield lost more material than anticipated, though not enough to be unsafe, per UPI. "Some of the expected char material that we would expect coming back home ablated away differently than what our computer models and what our ground testing predicted," said Howard Hu, manager of the Orion program, per Space.com.
Hu noted the spacecraft returned to Earth on Dec. 11 at 24,500mph before slowing to land at 16mph. It landed within 2.4 miles of the target, well within the requirement of 6.2 miles, Hu added, calling it a "really great performance." Though its mobile launcher suffered more damage than expected, according to NASA, the Space Launch System rocket also performed better than expected. It did "an outstanding job and met all our expectations and in fact exceeded most of them," said John Honeycutt, manager of the SLS program, per Space.com. He added that "postflight data analysis continues to show SLS is ready to support crewed Artemis missions."
Though teams continue to investigate the heat shield performance, Hu said Orion was on track for a crewed mission around the moon late next year. "I'm very excited going forward to complete this assessment, implement lessons learned for Artemis 2, and see the crew fly," he said. A NASA safety panel applauded the mission as "a clear success" in its annual report issued last month. However, the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel also raised concerns "that NASA's concerted attention to a healthy safety culture may have diminished, leaving NASA vulnerable to the same flaws that contributed to previous failures," per SpaceNews. It noted the Sept. 3 launch attempt was abandoned after a "manual command error" caused a leak in a liquid hydrogen line. (Read more Artemis missions stories.)