As the first flight of Artemis moves ever closer from Kennedy Space Center, critics continue to raise questions around the cost of the U.S. return to the moon by pointing to private sector alternatives as more expeditious and less resource intensive. Somehow lost in this critique is that the private sector is, in fact, the workforce behind all of NASA’s design and manufacturing of launch vehicles and crew modules. That was true in the 1960s for Apollo and remains true today for Artemis.
Such criticism isn’t new for the U.S. human spaceflight program. Despite the outpouring of nostalgia in July 2019 to commemorate the half century anniversary of Neil Armstrong stepping onto the lunar surface, NASA’s budget remained stubbornly static even as Artemis was being heralded as the next chapter in such storied American history. After all, since the retirement of the Saturn V rocket, no nation nor company had even built a vehicle capable of delivering astronauts back to cislunar orbit. Until the Space Launch System, that is.
In fairness, the critics of NASA’s Artemis program are correct about one thing – the commercial space sector is an emerging juggernaut. However, as in earlier eras of government supported technology, the economic growth will come once new capabilities become cost effective and accessible. To date, the lunar surface has immeasurable potential but doesn’t offer products to customers. Not yet anyway.
And that is where perspective is essential. Applying the public-versus-private sector contrast as a zero-sum tradeoff entirely misses the point, as aptly illustrated in the foundation of the Information Age. In 1943, under contract to the U.S. Army, John Brainerd and Herman Goldstine at the University of Pennsylvania assembled the first fully programmable, electronic computer known as ENIAC. While the seeds of a new era were planted by the public sector, commercial use of such technology remained largely unexplored.
Of course, history shows that innovation is rarely linear. In 1947, William Shockley, John Bardeen, and Walter Brattain well claimed the greatest invention of 20th century with the transistor but it would be the Apollo program 15 years later whose requirements drove Fairchild Semiconductor and other companies to refine the integrated circuitry capable of processing orbital flight dynamics and on-board systems. That seminal investment by NASA drove the price of a single computer chip down from $1,000 to less than $2 by 1969, while increasing reliability and capability by equally inverse proportions. Thus, the Information Age was underway.
Despite commercial access to relatively inexpensive processing power in the late 1960s, technology was far from ubiquitous in consumer products. The elements were there but the market was not. Even as the U.S. Defense Department developed the first distributed area packet switching networks using protocols which became the basis of today’s Internet, decades would lag before the World Wide Web would be invented in 1991 at CERN in Europe thus accelerating the technological, social, and economic transformation that we enjoy today. But in all cases, none of these innovation milestones occurred because of immediate commercial opportunities. Those were serendipitous spin-offs, not the core objectives.
No different than in earlier eras of government sponsored science and technology, the success of Artemis in opening the lunar surface – and later Mars – to human presence will serve as a catalytic force for economic enterprise to follow. This future is now upon us and long planned capabilities are being readied for flight. The Space Launch System core stage completed its penultimate hot fire test, boosters continue to be stacked, and the Orion spacecraft assembly has been completed and transferred to NASA’s Exploration Ground Systems team. We have arrived at this seminal spacefaring moment and future generations will regard the epic achievements to come of Artemis crew members akin to the great explorers.
While we may not know the precise return on investment as a nation, we can surely surmise the imperative of the U.S. leading the innovation and invention to power the coming industrial epoch. Thomas Edison long ago remarked, “If we did all the things we are capable of, we would literally astound ourselves.” As Artemis 1 makes its way to Launch Pad 39B later this year, even Edison would be astounded.
Christian Zur leads the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s policy formulation and advocacy on civilian and commercial space programs. His articles have been featured in publications such as Aviation Week, Defense News, Orlando Sentinel, Scientific American, Space News, The Hill, and The Seattle Times.