The first step of a journey is often the hardest. Therefore, it’s worth a pause to celebrate NASA’s important first step towards establishing a permanent presence in deep space.
Amid blue skies and white clouds, the Orion spacecraft landed in the Pacific Ocean a few hundred kilometers off the Baja Peninsula on Sunday. This ended the Artemis I mission, a 25.5-day spaceflight that showed NASA was about to begin flying humans into deep space once again.
This has not happened for half a century. Sometimes it felt like it would never happen again. But now definitely event.
NASA’s progress towards the Moon and potentially Mars one day has been lethargic at times. The political process that has brought NASA to this point in recent years has been messy and motivated by narrow-minded pig projects. But on Sunday, no one can deny that this process has brought NASA, the United States, and dozens of other countries participating in the Artemis Program to the point where the human deep space exploration program is a very, very real thing.
It’s been a long time.
The last Apollo mission ended this month, 1972. US presidents and the space agency were content to focus manned exploration in low Earth orbit for a while, with plans to develop the US space shuttle and build a large space station.
Eventually, however, some people started to get restless. On the 20th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing in 1989, President George Bush announced the Space Exploration Initiative, a long-term commitment to human exploration of deep space. The plan was to complete a space station and then, at the turn of the century, have humans begin building a base on the Moon.
What happened next was not particularly pleasant. Some people at NASA, including Administrator Dick Truly, did not entirely agree with Bush’s opinion. They worried that their lunar plans would disrupt the space station. NASA conducted and leaked a 90-day study that suggested Bush’s plan could cost half a trillion dollars or more. Moon plans are dead because Congress has no appetite for such a budget.
They would lie dormant for about ten and a half years until President George W. Bush resurrected them. Like his father, Bush devised a bold plan to send humans back to the Moon, where they would learn how to work in deep space and then go to Mars. This became the Constellation program.
This vision was well received in the aviation community, but then three bad things happened. NASA’s new administrator, Mike Griffin, chose the Ares I and Ares V rockets, a large and particularly expensive architecture, to get humans back to the Moon. International partners were largely ignored. And then neither the president nor Congress fought for the full funding the program would need to survive.
Constellation was years late and far over budget when President Obama canceled it in 2010. At this point Congress stepped in and rescued the Orion spacecraft launched in 2005 and determined the design of a new rocket, the Space Launch System. . The development of these programs has progressed in a roundabout way for most of the last decade, with consumption in excess of $30 billion with no clear destination. That changed in late 2017 when Vice President Mike Pence announced that NASA would land a man on the Moon.
This led to the formulation of the Artemis Program in 2018 and 2019. It was far from perfect, but more than functional. Moreover, it is built on past failures. While the Constellation program has a purely government-led architecture, Artemis has increasingly gravitated towards commercial space. Artemis has also sought, from the very beginning, to develop international cooperation through a series of bilateral agreements. Artemis Agreements. And as of this year, the program is fully funded.
“Fifty years ago we went as a country, as a government,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said on Sunday after Orion’s landing. “Today we go not only with international partners, but also with commercial partners. The beginning of a new beginning.”
A rare alignment
Numerous technical challenges lie ahead for the Artemis Program, including the development and testing of SpaceX’s complex Starship lunar lander and Axiom’s work on spacesuits capable of operating in the lunar environment. Both of these contracts, signed in 2021 and 2022 respectively, will likely take time and patience to bear fruit.
None of this will be fast. Artemis II Unlikely to fly before 2025and the actual moon landing mission won’t arrive until late this decade, perhaps 2027 or 2028.
But long-term thinking is instructive here. Two other post-Apollo deep space programs failed because they lacked political support, funding, or both. Artemis is different. It has both political support and funding. Remarkably, nearly every aspect of the space policy firmament—the White House, Congress, international allies, traditional aeronautics, commercial space, and the community of space advocates—aligned with Artemis’ broad goals.
There has been no such program and such support for Apollo since the 1960s. And that enthusiasm really crystallized in the crucible of national tragedy that followed the murder of President John F. Kennedy. For Artemis, nothing like this unifying event happened. Instead, elements of this program have had to survive four very different and very opposite administrations, from Bush to Obama, from Trump to Biden.
“You see a nation torn by partisanship,” Nelson said. “It’s not here. NASA is not partisan. R’s and D’s alike came together to support us.”
Surprisingly, then, the policy is sorted. Now it’s time for technical implementation. Engineering is difficult, but at least it’s rational, unlike space politics. Artemis I was shown to be a technical success. Do you think SpaceX can’t make a rocket to land on the Moon? Or, working with a NASA design, can’t Axiom produce spacesuits to keep lunar dust at bay?
Of course they can and they will.
Lack of coordination?
NASA is also taking steps to address one of the last major problems with Artemis, the lack of coordination. Johnson Space Center in Houston is responsible for Orion and the training of astronauts. Marshall Space Flight Center in northern Alabama is building the SLS rocket and overseeing development of the lunar lander. Kennedy Space Center launches missions.
As a result, several organizations and outside consultants have criticized NASA for not having a “program office” to coordinate the myriad elements that will go into the Artemis mission.
For example, NASA’s Office of the Inspector General mentioned recently“Unlike the first crewed missions to the lunar surface as part of the Apollo Program, NASA does not have a general NASA program manager overseeing the Artemis missions or a prime contractor serving as the lead systems integrator as in the Space Shuttle Program.” The concern is that without such an authority, the program will lack cohesion and see a struggle for influence.
But such an office really comes. Senior NASA engineer Mike Sarafin, who successfully served as mission manager for Artemis I, will become “mission development manager” for Artemis III. In an interview, Sarafin said that the Artemis Program Office is under development and doesn’t want to discuss the details yet. However, its role appears to include overall planning and coordination for complex flight to the Moon’s surface, bringing together the SLS rocket, Orion spacecraft, and Human Landing System programs under one roof.
Sarafin seems like the perfect choice to lead the Artemis III development. Artemis I guided its mission through numerous delays, overcoming difficulties with liquid hydrogen fuel, and suffered not one but two hurricanes in the weeks before the mission finally took flight. Still, despite all that, he and his crew made the leap on Sunday, bringing home a spacecraft in perfect condition that met or exceeded all of its targets.
Another criticism of Artemis is that she simply repeats the Apollo Programme. If Artemis fails after a few missions, she deserves such criticism. However, given the broad base of support for what is happening today, NASA now has a reliable way to not only explore the Moon’s South Pole, but also learn to live and work in deep space, and eventually send humans deeper into the Sun. System.
“We did the impossible there, we made it possible,” Nelson said of Apollo. “Now we’re doing it again, but for a different purpose. This time we’re going back to the Moon to learn to live, to work, to create.”
The greatest achievement imaginable for Artemis is her permanence that did not exist in the Apollonian era. In light of this weekend’s success, NASA has such a future ahead of it. They and their partners need to continue to run brilliantly as they did last month.
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