NASA Has Started Building Orion, the Next Spacecraft to Take Astronauts to the Moon

In 2019, then Vice President Mike Pence announced plans for NASA to return astronauts to the moon within five years, shifting the timeline for the next manned lunar mission from 2028 to 2024. Last month, Space.com reported that the 2024 timeline was expected to be relaxed a bit under the administration of President Joe Biden but work hasn't stopped on the Orion spacecraft that will carry the first woman and next man to the Moon. On Tuesday, NASA revealed that welding on Orion's crew module is underway for the first Artemis mission landing.

According to a new update from NASA, Orion contractor Lockheed Martin at NASA's Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans have welded together three cone-shaped panels on Orion's crew module for the Artemis III mission. The crew module's primary structure is made up of seven pieces that come together to create "a strong, air-tight habitable space for astronauts during the mission". Following the welding of the cone panels, work will then move to join the forward bulkhead and tunnel that create the top of the spacecraft and then joining the barrel and aft bulkhead to form the bottom. The final step will be to join the top portion to the cone panels and then the cone panels to the barrel, completing the pressure vessel. From there, the completed structure will be sent to Kennedy Space Center in Florida for further assembly this fall.

While there's still some time before astronauts will head back to the moon, the first unmanned mission, Artemis I, is set for sometime this year. According to NASA, the test flight will check performance, life support, and communication capabilities. A second, and manned, test flight -- Artemis II -- is set for 2023.

In September 2020, NASA shared an update on the Artemis program, solidifying exploration pans as well as refining the budget for the endeavor.

"With bipartisan support from Congress, our 21st-century push to the Moon is well within America's reach," NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said at the time. "As we've solidified more of our exploration plans in recent months, we've continued to refine our budget and architecture. We're going back to the Moon for scientific discovery, economic benefits, and inspiration for a new generation of explorers. As we build up a sustainable presence, we're also building momentum toward those first human steps on the Red Planet."