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Artemis 1 success earns widespread praise

Orion descending under parachutes
The successful conclusion of the Artemis 1 mission won praise from the White House, Congress, industry and international partners. Credit: NASA

WASHINGTON — The successful conclusion of the Artemis 1 mission Dec. 11 won widespread support from politicians and industry, a sign of broad support for a program that has suffered extensive delays.

The Artemis 1 mission wrapped up 25 and a half days after its liftoff on the inaugural flight of the Space Launch System with a splashdown in the Pacific Ocean west of Baja California. After post-splashdown tests and examinations, crews secured the capsule inside of the recovery ship USS Portland about six hours after splashdown. The ship should arrive at the port of San Diego, California, Dec. 13.

The success of the overall mission won praise from the White House and members of Congress, often using similar language. “I applaud the @NASA team for their work on completing a successful Artemis 1 mission. We’re one step closer to returning astronauts to the moon,” tweeted Vice President Kamala Harris, who chairs the National Space Council.

“From launch to splashdown and its ongoing recovery, the successful Artemis 1 mission marks a new era in space exploration,” said Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas), the chair of the House Science Committee who is retiring at the end of the year, in a statement. “We are now one step closer to returning American astronauts to the moon.”

“Success! We are one giant leap closer to returning Americans to the moon and a new era of deep space exploration,” tweeted Rep. Brian Babin (R-Texas), ranking member of the House Science Committee’s space subcommittee. His district includes the Johnson Space Center.

The praise came despite years of delays in the development of the key Artemis programs, Orion and SLS. The 2010 NASA authorization act directed NASA to have the SLS ready for its first launch by the end of 2016, but suffered lengthy delays. Orion was also not immune to problems, particularly with its European-built service module.

“NASA is basically nonpartisan,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said at the post-splashdown briefing of the broad support he sees for the agency, reiterating a point he often made when he was a senator. “R’s and D’s [Republicans and Democrats] alike come together to join us.”

While the next SLS/Orion mission, Artemis 2, is still about two years away, Nelson said he was not concerned about losing support currently evident for Artemis and NASA in general on Capitol Hill.

“That support is enduring,” he said, predicting it will be sustained by an expected announcement of the crew for Artemis 2 in early 2023.

International and industry support

Nelson also pointed to strong international support for Artemis, offering an anecdote about how, when he was in Paris in September for the International Astronautical Congress, he received word that French President Emmanuel Macron wanted to meet with him. “He’s a space aficionado,” he said of Macron, noting that on a recent state visit to the U.S., Macron visited NASA Headquarters with Vice President Harris.

“The success of the first Artemis mission further strengthens the international partnership going forward to the moon,” said David Parker, director of human and robotic exploration at the European Space Agency, in a statement after splashdown. “As a child of Apollo, it is humbling to be part of the human return to the moon thanks to the huge efforts over many years by the joint team of ESA and industry that have designed, built and flown the first European Service Module.”

“We just witnessed the first of a multi-mission campaign aimed at bringing sustainable human presence to the moon’s orbit and its surface,” said Lisa Campbell, president of the Canadian Space Agency, in a statement.

Her agency did not have a major role in Artemis 1 but will have an astronaut on Artemis 2 and another on a later Artemis mission in exchange for providing the Canadarm3 robotic arm system for the lunar Gateway. “Our space legacy is more alive than ever: Canadians of all ages and backgrounds are eagerly waiting to see how this new chapter unfolds.”

Space industry groups also weighed in. “The success of the Artemis 1 mission validates the readiness of systems supporting human missions to deep space,” said Frank Slazer, president and chief executive of the Coalition for Deep Space Exploration. “If there was any question about whether NASA and its industry partners were ready to go back to the moon, Artemis 1 has definitively answered ‘Yes!’ For the first time in nearly 50 years, we’ll be ready to send people back to the moon – and soon.”

That return to the human surface will rely on another company, SpaceX, which has more than $4 billion in NASA awards to develop lunar lander versions of its Starship vehicle and demonstrate them on the Artemis 3 and 4 missions. SpaceX was not directly involved in the Artemis 1 mission and neither the company nor its leadership publicly commented on the conclusion of the mission.

Elon Musk, founder and chief executive of SpaceX, has been consumed in recent weeks with his acquisition of social media company Twitter, devoting nearly all of his time on reshaping the company while also courting controversy. That included a tweet early Dec. 11 that called for the prosecution of Dr. Anthony Fauci, the retiring director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, for unstated offenses while also appearing to mock the use of preferred pronouns.

When a reporter asked Nelson about those comments at the post-splashdown briefing, Nelson and other NASA officials said they could not understand the reporter’s question because of interference on the telephone line, although the question was largely intelligible to other reporters listening in.

Another reporter in the room approached Nelson after the briefing to ask about any concerns the agency had about Musk. Nelson said he had spoken recently with Gwynne Shotwell, president of SpaceX, who reassured him that Musk’s work at Twitter would not be a distraction to SpaceX.

In response to another question at the briefing, Nelson said he checks in frequently with Jim Free, associate administrator for exploration systems development, to see if Starship development was meeting its benchmarks. “And the answer that comes back to me is yes, and in some cases exceeding,” he said. That includes an uncrewed lunar landing in late 2023, he claimed, although SpaceX has yet to attempt a Starship orbital launch.

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree...