The first step of a journey is often the most difficult. So it’s worth pausing for a moment to celebrate that NASA has just taken the essential first step on the road to establishing a permanent presence in deep space.
Against a backdrop of blue skies and white clouds, the Orion spacecraft came down in the Pacific Ocean on Sunday a few hundred kilometers from the Baja California peninsula. This ended the Artemis I mission, a 25.5-day spaceflight that showed NASA is almost ready to start taking humans back into deep space once more.
This has not happened in half a century. At times, it seemed like it could never happen again. But now it definitely is happening.
NASA’s progress back to the Moon, and potentially one day Mars, has been lethargic at times. The political process that got NASA to this point in the last few decades was messy and motivated by parochial pig projects. But there is no denying Sunday that this process has brought NASA, the United States and dozens of other nations participating in the Artemis Program to the point where their human deep space exploration program is a very, very real thing.
It has 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 on low-Earth orbit, with the development of the US space shuttle. and plans to build a huge space station.
Eventually, however, some people began 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, by the turn of the century, have humans on the Moon start building a base there.
What happened next was not particularly pretty. Some people at NASA, including Administrator Dick Truly, were not entirely on board with Bush’s idea. He worried that lunar plans would disturb the space station. Infamously, NASA conducted and leaked a 90-day study suggesting that Bush’s plan could cost half a trillion dollars or more. Since Congress had no appetite for such a budget, Moon’s plans died.
They would lie dormant for nearly a decade and a half before being resurrected by President George W. Bush. Like his father, Bush envisioned a bold plan to send humans back to the Moon, where they would learn how to operate in deep space and then go to Mars. This became the Constellation program.
This vision was well received in the aerospace community, but then three bad things happened. NASA’s new administrator, Mike Griffin, chose a large and particularly expensive architecture, the Ares I and Ares V rockets, to carry 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 arrived years late and well over budget when President Obama canceled it in 2010. At that point, Congress stepped in and saved the Orion spacecraft, which had started in 2005, and set the design for a new rocket, the Space Launch System. . . Development of these programs roamed for much of the last decade, consuming more than $30 billion, with no clear destination. That changed in late 2017 when Vice President Mike Pence announced that NASA would land humans on the Moon.
This led to the formulation of the Artemis Program in 2018 and 2019. It has been far from perfect, but more than functional. Furthermore, it was based on past failures. Whereas the Constellation program had purely government-led architecture, Artemis has leaned more and more into the commercial space. Artemis also sought to build on international cooperation early on, through a series of bilateral agreements known as the Artemis Accords. And starting this year, the program is fully funded.
“Fifty years ago we were as a country, as a government,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said Sunday after the Orion landing. “Today we are going not only with international partners, but with business partners. It’s the beginning of a new beginning.”
a rare lineup
Myriad technical challenges lie ahead for the Artemis Program, including development and testing of SpaceX’s complex Starship lunar lander, and Axiom’s work on spacesuits capable of operating in the lunar environment. Both contracts, awarded in 2021 and 2022 respectively, will likely require time and patience to come to fruition.
None of this is going to happen fast. Artemis II is unlikely to fly before 2025and the actual lunar landing mission won’t arrive until later this decade, perhaps 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 has 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 advocacy community—has aligned with Artemis’s overarching goals.
That kind of support hasn’t been around for a show like this since the 1960s and Apollo. And that fervor only crystallized in the crucible of national tragedy that followed the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. There has been nothing like that unifying event for Artemis. Rather, elements of this program have had to survive through four different and widely opposed administrations, from Bush to Obama, from Trump to Biden.
“You see a nation torn apart by partisanship,” Nelson said. “That doesn’t exist here. NASA is nonpartisan. Both the R’s and D’s come together to support us.”
Remarkably, then, the policy is neat. Now it all comes down to technical execution. Engineering is tough, but at least it’s based on reason, unlike space politics. Artemis I has proven to be a technical success. Think SpaceX can’t make a rocket to land on the Moon? Or Axiom, working to a NASA design, can’t make spacesuits to keep lunar dust at bay?
They certainly can, and will.
Lack of coordination?
NASA is also taking steps to address one of the last major issues with Artemis, the lack of coordination. The Johnson Space Center in Houston is responsible for Orion and astronaut training. Marshall Space Flight Center in northern Alabama builds the SLS rocket and manages lunar lander development. The Kennedy Space Center launches the missions.
As a result, various organizations and outside advisers have criticized NASA for the lack of a “program office” to coordinate the myriad of elements to be included in the Artemis mission.
For example, the NASA Office of the Inspector General recently declared, “Unlike the first manned missions to the lunar surface under the Apollo Program, NASA does not have a general NASA program manager who oversees the Artemis missions or a prime contractor, as in the Space Shuttle Program, who acts as the main system integrator. The concern is that without that official, the program would lack cohesion and see infighting for influence.
However, such an office is coming. Mike Sarafin, the senior NASA engineer who successfully served as the Artemis I mission manager, will become the “mission development manager” for Artemis III. In an interview, Sarafin said that an Artemis Program Office remains in the development stages and that he did not want to discuss the details yet. However, it appears that his role will involve overall planning and coordination for the complex flight to the surface of the Moon, bringing together the SLS rocket, Orion spacecraft, and 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 countless delays, overcoming liquid hydrogen fuel challenges and not one but two hurricanes in the weeks before the mission finally took off. And yet, through it all, he and his team brought home a spacecraft in excellent condition, meeting or exceeding all of their targets by splashdowning on Sunday.
Another criticism of Artemis is that she simply repeats the Apollo Program. If Artemis vanishes after a few missions, then they deserve such criticism. However, given the broad base of support for what is happening today, NASA now has a credible path forward for not only exploring the South Pole of the Moon, but also learning to live and work in deep space and, finally, send humans deeper into the Solar. System.
“There we did the impossible, making it possible,” Nelson said of Apollo. “Now, we are doing it again, but with a different purpose. This time we are going back to the Moon to learn to live, to work, to create.”
The greatest success imaginable for Artemis would be for her to have a tenure not enjoyed during the Apollo era. In light of this weekend’s success, that future is there for NASA. They and their partners just need to continue to run as brilliantly as they have for the past month.
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