The first leg of a journey is often the hardest. It is therefore worth pausing for a moment to celebrate that NASA has just taken the first essential step on the road to establishing a permanent presence in deep space.
Against a backdrop of blue skies and white clouds, the Orion spacecraft crashed into the Pacific Ocean a few hundred miles off the Baja Peninsula on Sunday. This ended the Artemis I mission, a 25.5-day spaceflight that demonstrated that NASA is about to start flying humans in deep space again.
This has not happened for half a century. Sometimes it seemed like it would never happen again. But now it’s most definitely event.
NASA’s progress to the Moon, and one day potentially to Mars, has been sluggish at times. The political process that got NASA to this point over the past few decades was messy and driven by parochial pork projects. But on Sunday, there’s no denying that this process has brought NASA, the United States and dozens of other countries participating in the Artemis program to the point where its deep space human exploration program is a very, very thing. real.
It’s been a long time coming.
The last Apollo mission ended this month, in 1972. For a time, US presidents and the space agency were content to focus human exploration in low Earth orbit, with the development of the American space shuttle and plans for building a large space station.
Eventually, however, some people started to get restless. On the 20th anniversary of the landing of Apollo 11 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 on the Moon begin building a base there.
What happened next wasn’t particularly pretty. Some people at NASA, including Administrator Dick Truly, didn’t entirely agree with Bush’s idea. They feared that the lunar plans would disrupt the space station. Unfortunately, NASA conducted and leaked a 90-day study suggesting Bush’s plan could cost half a trillion dollars or more. Since Congress had no appetite for such a budget, the Moon plans died.
They would lie dormant for nearly a decade and a half before President George W. Bush resuscitated them. Like his father, Bush envisioned a bold plan to send humans back to the Moon, where they would learn to operate in deep space, and then travel to Mars. It became the Constellation program.
This vision was well received in the aerospace community, but three bad things happened. NASA’s new administrator, Mike Griffin, has chosen a vast and particularly expensive architecture – the Ares I and Ares V rockets – to bring humans back to the Moon. International partners have been largely ignored. And then neither the president nor Congress fought for the full funding the program would need to survive.
Constellation was years behind schedule and well over budget when President Obama canceled it in 2010. At that point, Congress stepped in and saved the Orion spacecraft, which had been launched in 2005, and set the design of a new rocket, the space launch system. . The development of these programs has meandered for much of the past decade, consuming more than $30 billion, with no clear destination. That changed in late 2017 when Vice President Mike Pence announced that NASA would be landing humans on the Moon.
This led to the formulation of the Artemis program in 2018 and 2019. It is far from perfect, but more than functional. Moreover, he relied on past failures. While the Constellation program had a purely government architecture, Artemis increasingly relied on commercial space. Artemis also sought to strengthen international cooperation from the start, through a series of bilateral agreements known as the chords of Artemis. And as of this year, the program is fully funded.
“Fifty years ago, we were going there as a country, as a government,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said after Orion landed on Sunday. “Today we are going not only with international partners, but business partners. This is the start of a new beginning.”
A rare alignment
A myriad of technical challenges remain 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. These two contracts, awarded in 2021 and 2022 respectively, will likely require time and patience to materialize.
None of this will happen quickly. Artemis II is unlikely to fly before the year 2025and the actual lunar landing mission won’t arrive until later in the decade, possibly in 2027 or 2028.
But taking the long view is instructive here. The other two post-Apollo deep space programs failed because they lacked political support, funding, or both. Artemis is different. It enjoys both political support and funding. Remarkably, virtually every aspect of the space policy firmament—the White House, Congress, international allies, traditional aerospace, commercial space, and the space defense community—has aligned with the overall goals. of Artemis.
That kind of support hasn’t existed for a program like this since the 1960s and Apollo. And that fervor only really crystallized in the crucible of the national tragedy that followed the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. There was nothing quite like this unifying event for Artemis. On the contrary, elements of this program had to survive in four different and very opposed administrations, from Bush to Obama to Trump and Biden.
“You see a nation torn apart by partisanship,” Nelson said. “That doesn’t exist here. NASA is non-partisan. The R’s and D’s come together to support us.”
Surprisingly, then, the politics are sorted. Now it’s all about technical execution. Engineering is hard, but at least it’s based on reason, unlike space politics. Artemis I proved to be a technical success. Do you think SpaceX can’t land a rocket on the Moon? Or Axiom, working with a NASA design, can’t make space suits to keep lunar dust at bay?
Certainly they can and they will.
A lack of coordination?
NASA is also taking steps to address one of the last major issues with Artemis, a lack of coordination. The Johnson Space Center in Houston is responsible for Orion and astronaut training. The Marshall Space Flight Center in northern Alabama builds the SLS rocket and manages lunar lander development. Kennedy Space Center launches the missions.
As a result, several outside organizations and advisers have criticized NASA for the lack of a “program office” to coordinate the myriad of elements that will go into the Artemis mission.
For example, NASA’s Office of Inspector General recently said, “Unlike the first crewed missions to the lunar surface under the Apollo program, NASA does not have an overall NASA program manager overseeing the Artemis missions or a prime contractor, as in the Space Shuttle program , serving as the lead systems integrator.” The concern is that, without such a manager, the program would lack cohesion and see struggles for influence.
However, such an office is indeed coming. Mike Sarafin, the senior NASA engineer who successfully served as mission manager for Artemis I, will become the “mission development manager” for Artemis III. In an interview, Sarafin said that an office of the Artemis program was still in the development phase and he did not want to discuss details yet. However, it appears his role will involve the overall planning and coordination of the complex flight to the surface of the Moon, bringing together the SLS rocket, the Orion spacecraft and the human landing system programs under one roof.
Sarafin seems like an excellent choice to lead the development of Artemis III. He guided the Artemis I mission through a myriad of delays, overcoming liquid hydrogen refueling challenges, and not one but two hurricanes in the weeks leading up to the mission’s liftoff. And yet, through it all, he and his team brought home a spacecraft in great shape, meeting or exceeding all of its goals by splashing down on Sunday.
Another criticism of Artemis is that it merely repeats the Apollo program. If Artemis dies out after a few missions, then such criticism is deserved. However, give a broad base of support to what is happening today, NASA now has a credible path to not only explore the South Pole of the Moon, but learn to live and work in deep space, and eventually send humans deeper into the Solar. System.
“There we did the impossible, making 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 how to live, how to work, how to create.”
The greatest imaginable success for Artemis would be that he has an unappreciated permanence in the time of Apollo. In light of this weekend’s success, such a future is here for NASA. They and their partners just need to keep performing as brilliantly as they have over the past month.