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Why is NASA returning to the moon? Joe Pappalardo on the Artemis program, the future of U.S. spaceflight, and the beginnings of a new space race.
NASA has delayed the launch of its Artemis 1 moon mission twice over the past two weeks—keeping its 322-foot Space Launch System rocket and Orion capsule grounded in Cape Canaveral, Florida, where crowds of eager onlookers have been hoping to see the making of history. The first launch attempt, on August 29, was called off after a faulty sensor indicated a problem with one of the rocket’s engines. The second, this past Saturday, was jettisoned due to a fuel leak. Now it’ll be September 19, at the earliest, before the U.S. space agency tries again with the $4.1 billion flight of an unmanned rocket to orbit the moon. Artemis 1 is the first of three planned missions for the Artemis program in the coming years; the second will bring astronauts into lunar orbit; and the third will, as NASA says, “put footprints on the moon dust for the first time since 1972.” What’s driving all this?
Joe Pappalardo is a U.S.-based journalist and the author of Spaceport Earth: The Reinvention of Spaceflight. The context for the Artemis program, as Pappalardo sees it, is that NASA now understands the moon as a key resource in its broader ambitions over the next decades. These include establishing a space station in the moon’s orbit, spurring the growth of a commercial space industry that NASA understands as essential to its long-term success, and ultimately extracting ice from lunar caters as a resource for space travel—and laying the foundation for the human exploration of Mars. Meanwhile, the Artemis program allows the U.S. to lead a coalition of countries around the world in an ambitious collective effort. At a moment in history when China and Russia are mobilizing on their own objectives in space, as they continue to on some of their more troubling objectives here on Earth, Pappalardo sees the competition between democracies and autocracies extending beyond our world as it intensifies within it.
Graham Vyse: How unusual are the launch delays we’ve seen for Artemis 1?
Joe Pappalardo: These kinds of engineering-driven delays—certainly at this stage of a rocket program—aren’t uncommon. So on the one hand, I think of them as part of the process, which isn’t always going to be smooth and easy. On the other hand, I think about all the money being spent—and how much slower this process has been compared with commercial space programs—and I wonder about the benefit of that. NASA is using legacy hardware from the era of the Space Shuttle, so the expectation was that they knew what they were doing, and there shouldn’t be too many surprises, but the testing went badly from the start and now they look a little embarrassed.
I’m beginning to feel a little worried about lots of delays leading to cost overruns and that SpaceX’s lander for the upcoming Artemis 3 mission to the lunar surface might be ready before the Space Launch System and Orion are ready. This Artemis 1 launch is ultimately going to happen, but there’s a risk that years of expensive delays could limit the aspirations of the Artemis program as a whole.
Vyse: As you see a lot of observers noting, the program is already years behind schedule and billions of dollars over budget. Why is that?
Pappalardo: Each launch for the program costs over $4 billion. Cost overruns are from delays caused by engineering problems—the need for extra tests, for instance. We’re talking about a big, complicated program, with lots of subcontractors from just about every congressional district in America. Creating jobs is a point of pride, but when you have so many different parts of a program created by so many different people, one thing going wrong can mean delays for the whole effort.
It may be unfair to compare SpaceX and NASA, but SpaceX is built to be fast-but-risky whereas NASA is built to be slow-but-reliable. We’re now seeing that the fast-but-risky approach is actually leading to not only faster but more reliable results. Artemis is this giant U.S. government program that leaks money—as the Apollo program was—and that seems antiquated, but lots of members of Congress could get behind its traditional approach, which made use of languishing NASA facilities and had a supply chain stretching into lots of different communities. There are real benefits to NASA doing work across these communities, of course, but this approach can get in the way of doing things quickly, being able to change direction when engineers learn something new, or being free to adopt new technology and machinery. There’s less flexibility. And the Space Launch System isn’t reusable, either, meaning it’s a costly rocket that can only be used once. It would be foolish to stop this program now, but it would be grossly irresponsible to replicate it in the future.
More from Joe Pappalardo at The Signal:
Artemis 1 is a shakedown cruise—a performance test—for the rocket and capsule system. It’ll test the navigation systems and the spacecraft’s engines to get into lunar orbit. Then the capsule will fly unmanned around the moon in a very wide and long arc—even wider and longer than Apollo 13’s in 1970. It’ll loop around, come back to Earth, and land somewhere in the Pacific Ocean. This capsule—the Orion capsule, built by Boeing—is what the crew will ride in to get to the moon on future missions.”
NASA talks about going back to the moon as a means of preparing to land on Mars—though if that’s what they really care about, I wonder why they don’t focus on it more directly, given that the moon and Mars are radically different. When you speak to lower-level people at NASA who do a lot of serious thinking, you realize the moon is going to end up being a kind of resource outpost for trips into space. Ice trapped in its poles will be convertible into fuel for ships to travel greater distances. NASA ultimately wants to have a permanent space station, the Lunar Gateway, orbiting the moon as a place where you can get supplies or use an excellent communications system. Think of it as being like a hotel and telegraph office in the Wild West—and maybe, in the future, a fueling station.”
There wouldn’t be an Artemis program without the commercial industry. There are commercial missions with robotic landers that will lay the groundwork for astronauts to return to the moon, and there will be a SpaceX Starship taking those astronauts to the lunar surface on NASA’s behalf. That’s an enormous role. Follow-on missions will involve other companies like Blue Origin. It’d be a lot easier to imagine private companies landing on the moon without NASA than to imagine NASA landing on the moon without private companies.”
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