The first step of a journey is often the most difficult one. So it is worth pausing a moment to celebrate that NASA just took the essential first step on the path toward establishing a permanent presence in deep space.
Amidst a backdrop of blue skies and white clouds, the Orion spacecraft dropped into the Pacific Ocean on Sunday a few hundred kilometers off the Baja Peninsula. This brought to a close the Artemis I mission, a 25.5-day spaceflight that demonstrated NASA is just about ready to begin flying humans back into deep space once again.
This has not happened in half a century. At times, it seemed like it might never happen again. But now, it is most definitely happening.
NASA’s progress back toward the Moon, and one day potentially Mars, has been at times lethargic. The political process that led NASA to this point in recent decades was messy and motivated by parochial pork projects. But on Sunday there could be no denying that this process has brought NASA, the United States, and dozens of other nations participating in the Artemis Program to the point where its human deep space exploration program is a very, very real thing.
It has been a long time coming.
The final 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 development of the US space shuttle and plans for building 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-range commitment toward the 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 starting to build 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. They worried that the lunar plans would disrupt the space station. Infamously, NASA conducted and leaked a 90-day study that suggested Bush’s plan might cost half a trillion dollars or more. As Congress had no appetite for such a budget, the Moon plans died.
They would lay dormant for nearly a decade and a half before President George W. Bush resurrected them. 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 on 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, picked a large and particularly expensive architecture—the Ares I and Ares V rockets—to get humans back to the Moon. International partners were largely ignored. And then neither the president or 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 that point Congress stepped in and saved the Orion spacecraft, which had been started in 2005, and set the design for a new rocket, the Space Launch System. The development of these programs meandered along for much of the last decade, consuming in excess of $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. Moreover, it built upon past failures. Whereas the Constellation program had a purely government-led architecture, Artemis has leaned increasingly on commercial space. Artemis also sought to build in international cooperation from the beginning, through a series of bilateral agreements known as the Artemis Accords. 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 commercial partners. It is the beginning of the new beginning.”
A rare alignment
Myriad technical challenges remain 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 on the lunar environment. Both of these contracts, awarded in 2021 and 2022 respectively, probably will require time and patience to reach fruition.
None of this is going to happen fast. Artemis II is unlikely to fly before the year 2025, and the actual lunar landing mission will not come until later this decade, perhaps in 2027 or 2028.
But taking the long view is instructive here. The 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, virtually every aspect of the space policy firmament—the White House, Congress, international allies, traditional aerospace, commercial space, and the space advocacy community—have fallen into alignment on the broad goals of Artemis.
That kind of support has not existed for a program like this since the 1960s, and Apollo. And that fervor really only crystallized in the crucible of national tragedy that followed the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. There has been nothing akin to that unifying event for Artemis. Rather, elements of this program have had to survive across four different and very much opposed administrations, from Bush to Obama to Trump to Biden.
“You see a nation riven with partisanship,” Nelson said. “That doesn’t exist here. NASA is non-partisan. Rs and Ds alike come together to support us.”
Amazingly, then, the politics are sorted. Now it comes down to technical execution. Engineering is hard, but at least it is based on reason, unlike space policy. Artemis I has been shown to be a technical success. Do you think SpaceX cannot make a rocket to land on the Moon? Or Axiom, working with a NASA design, cannot manufacture spacesuits to keep the 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. Johnson Space Center in Houston is responsible for Orion, and training the astronauts. Marshall Space Flight Center in northern Alabama builds the SLS rocket and manages development of the lunar lander. Kennedy Space Center launches the missions.
As a result, several organizations and outside advisors have criticized NASA for the lack of a “program office” to coordinate the myriad elements that will go into Artemis mission.
For example, NASA’s Office of Inspector General recently stated, “Unlike the first crewed missions to the lunar surface under the Apollo Program, NASA has no overall NASA program manager overseeing the Artemis missions or a main contractor, as in the Space Shuttle Program, serving as a lead systems integrator.” The concern is that, without such an official, the program would lack cohesion and see in-fighting 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 an Artemis Program Office remains in the development stages, and he did not want to discuss details yet. However, it sounds like its 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 Artemis III development. He guided the Artemis I mission through myriad delays, overcoming challenges with liquid hydrogen fueling, and not one but two hurricanes in the weeks before the mission finally took flight. And yet, through all of this, he and his team brought home a spacecraft in great condition, meeting or exceeding all of its goals by splashing down on Sunday.
Another criticism of Artemis is that it simply repeats the Apollo Program. If Artemis fizzles out after a few missions, then such criticism is merited. However, give the broad base of support for what is happening today, NASA now has a credible pathway forward to not just exploring the South Pole of the Moon, but learning to live and work in deep space, and eventually sending humans deeper into the Solar System.
“There we did the impossible, making it possible,” Nelson said of Apollo. “Now, we are doing that again but for a different purpose. This time we go back to the Moon to learn to live, to work, to create.”
The greatest success imaginable for Artemis would be that it has a permanence not enjoyed during the Apollo era. In light of this weekend’s success, such a future is there for the taking for NASA. They and their partners just need to continue to execute as brilliantly as they did over the last month.