On Aug. 29, I was glued to the TV, hoping to watch the launch of Artemis 1. The launch was scrubbed due to fuel leaks. Another launch attempt on Sept. 3 was also scrubbed for the same reason. NASA and all space enthusiasts all over the planet hoped to see a successful launch on September 27, but hurricane Ian got in the way. NASA expects to try again on November 14.
Spaceflight is hard, isn’t it? They call difficult things “rocket science” for a reason.
The scrubbed launch attempts have drawn large crowds to Florida’s Space Coast, which may seem odd for a test mission without astronauts. But enthusiasm for the return to the moon is high: spaceflight enthusiasts want to be there for the inauguration and first system test of the Artemis program – the Apollo program of the 2020s.
This time we want to go to the moon and stay, sustainably and permanently. And then Mars. Apollo was a false start, but Artemis could be the real start.
Of course, critics are ready to point the finger at NASA and the U.S. government. The SLS, some critics say, is a dinosaur based on yesterday’s technology. NASA can’t fix one problem without creating two new problems, and it costs far too much. Elon Musk’s Starship, some critics say, could do the job faster, better, and much cheaper.
In her book “Escaping Gravity: My Quest to Transform NASA and Launch a New Space Age” (2022), former NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver argues that NASA should stop wasting money on obsolete dinosaurs, and fully embrace commercial off-the-shelf alternatives. Garver takes credit for the first successful steps in this direction, but believes NASA should do more. “If successful, Starship alone could perform the entire Artemis mission without SLS, Orion, or the Lunar Gateway,” says Garver referring to SpaceX’s Starship, “at significantly reduced cost and increased capability,” she says.
Garver is hardly the only one to say this. Many do, and I tend to agree.
But the “wasted” dollars buy the political support without which no big government rocket can fly. This is how things work in the U.S. political system. The choice of SLS, Orion, the gateway all that, doesn’t indicate stupidity but realpolitik.
I used to be persuaded that the current U.S. administration would cancel the Artemis program soon after being sworn in. This has happened so many times in the past: a new administration comes in and cancels the space programs started by the previous administration in a political gesture. But this hasn’t been the case this time. On the contrary, as we approach the U.S. midterm elections, Artemis 1 is close to the launch ramp, and NASA is still committed to “sustained human presence and exploration throughout the solar system,” beginning with the moon.
To me, this indicates that pragmatic realpolitik has paid off, and in a difficult political moment, in terms of bipartisan support for the Artemis program.
I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the positive attitude of the current U.S. administration toward Artemis, but I’m too old to believe that politicians are really interested in space programs. Rather, I think they have come to understand the risks of not moving outward to the moon. They understand that China wants to lead the race to the moon and establish industrial — and likely military — supremacy in cislunar space with the support of Russia and other allies. The results would be catastrophic for the U.S. and the West.
China’s cultural supremacy would be equally catastrophic for the U.S. and the West. The U.S. established cultural supremacy through Hollywood, scientific excellence, and awesome achievements like the Apollo program. Watching American astronauts walk on the moon, kids worldwide looked at the U.S. as the promised land of unlimited, awesome futures. Many of those kids then realized their dream of moving to the U.S. (physically or mentally) and contributing to America’s supremacy.
Do we want to see China and its allies take this role for the rest of this century? If not, we all must do our best to support the Artemis program.
In particular, we don’t need a conflict between the supporters of NASA and SpaceX.
This is not the moment to criticize NASA. This is the moment to stand united behind NASA and support the Artemis program. By all indications, if pragmatic realpolitik keeps the program alive and successful for as long as it takes, the role of SpaceX will be reconsidered. According to the current plan Artemis 3 — the first Artemis mission to land astronauts on the surface of the moon — will use Starship as its lunar lander. SpaceX enthusiasts should see this as an encouraging first step toward the gradual integration of Starship into the Artemis program.
Once Starship has operationally proven its efficiency and cost-effectiveness in a support role, it will be difficult to keep the option to use Starship as the main Artemis launch system off the table. Therefore, I recommend patience to SpaceX and its enthusiastic supporters: if the Artemis program is successful, the time for Starship will come. If everything goes well, future astronauts could fly directly to the moon on Starship, and live in Starship while they build permanent habitats on the lunar surface.
Giulio Prisco is a longtime space enthusiast and a former space professional. He’s the author of “Futurist Spaceflight Meditations” (2021).
This article originally appeared in the November 2022 issue of SpaceNews magazine.