NASA Takes Aim at a Once-Familiar Target
Sometimes it’s hard to keep up with space news. There are thousands of satellites orbiting Earth these days. SpaceX has made trips to the International Space Station seem routine. Upstart rocket companies — Blue Origin, Rocket Lab, Astra— seem to throw something new into the heavens every week. China, Russia, Japan, India, Israel, and other countries have spacefaring knowhow and hardware. And now, at a moment that seems both daringly new and oddly repetitive, space enthusiasts are holding their breath to see whether the world’s most experienced and successful space program — NASA, in case you’ve forgotten — can once again get astronauts to the moon.
The agency has announced that its Artemis 1 mission will take off next week, naming Monday, August 29th as its primary launch date. The aim of the mission is to see if the Space Launch System, America’s new super heavy-lift expendable launch vehicle, is ready to ferry the equally new Orion spacecraft mounted atop it to the moon and back. This first mission will carry no astronauts. Its aim is simply to get to the moon, assume and maintain orbit, and then return to Earth some six weeks later. If it’s successful, though, NASA plans to use SLS/Orion to send four human beings to the lunar surface in 2025.
Anticipation for the launch is almost as high as it was for the early space shuttle missions. Authorities in South Florida estimate some 300,000 people will turn out to watch Artemis 1 take off from Launch Pad 39B of Kennedy Space Center. There are several reasons why the launch is significant.
First, it’s the moon: Queen of Night, Kingdom of Dreams, Earth’s pale orbital remora. Yes, we’ve been there before. Twelve American astronauts walked on the lunar surface, and the Russians and the Chinese have both explored our ancient satellite remotely. But NASA has a more ambitious agenda in mind this time. We won’t just be collecting rocks. Rather, the aim is to establish a more or less permanent base, which would allow scientists and engineers to explore and perhaps even start harvesting resources — water, for one — from the moon. A lunar base would also serve in part as a preparatory station for a later mission to Mars. Mars! We’ve been dreaming of visiting the red planet in person for decades. Getting back to the moon is seen by NASA as a first stage on that trip.
Second, the Artemis 1 launch will be a test of old vs. new. It’s a comparison not so much in terms of technology — though there’s some of that too — but in approach. Artemis is a NASA rocket, not just a NASA mission. SpaceX, Space Lab, and Blue Origin have all flown their own proprietary, custom-built rockets to low-earth orbit on NASA missions, putting people and satellites two hundred miles above the Earth. Artemis was built to NASA specs by so-called “legacy contractors” (Boeing, Lockheed Martin, etc.), and it will — hopefully — fly an uncrewed capsule some 240,000 miles to the moon and back.
I say “hopefully.” Some space pundits aren’t hopeful at all. It’s not that they want the mission to fail, exactly. It’s just that they think SLS is a misguided attempt at what might be called “nostalgic rocketry” — i.e., the way rocketry was done when only two nations in the world knew how to do it, and there weren’t private companies around to take the financial risk and possibly bring innovation to the table quickly and efficiently.
SLS was commissioned way back in 2010, a holdover from the Obama-era decision to scrap George W. Bush’s under-funded Constellation program. The SLS is many years behind schedule and billions of dollars over budget. It’s been plagued by development problems that have left many observers wondering why we don’t just let craftier, nimbler contractors like SpaceX build the rockets instead of having the U.S. government do thing the way they were done in the glory days of Apollo, Nixon, Tiny Tim and the Miracle Mets. Indeed, SpaceX is rapidly nearing completion of its own spacecraft to rival the SLS/Orion configuration. It’s called Starship, and it’s powered the biggest and most powerful rocket stack ever constructed. According to Musk Nation, it will be able to fly human beings to Mars just as capably, if not more so, than anything NASA can build.
One more reason why the launch is significant is that it represents a push by NASA to remedy what might be considered an historical wrong. All of the human beings who have visited the moon thus far have been white males. The agency is very consciously promoting Artemis — sister of Apollo, of course — as a way to get women and minority astronauts to the lunar surface as well. It’s all part of a larger effort to get more young people excited about the prospects of a life in science, engineering, and zero-g.
One journalist has characterized NASA’s launch as a “last chance” for the agency to stay in the crewed mission game. I’m not sure that’s right. NASA has earned substantial respect and prestige recently for its James Webb Space Telescope mission, which, along with the venerable Hubble Space Telescope, has given the U.S. an international preeminence in space astronomy equivalent to the dominance of Olympic basketball by the 1992 “Dream Team” that featured Michael Jordan and Larry Bird. Besides that, NASA and its legacy contractors have operations strategically located in congressional districts all across the country. An Artemis failure would be a terrible blow to agency morale, but it wouldn’t necessarily result in a significant loss of support for NASA.
So bring on Monday! If all goes according to plan, the SLS will fire up its liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen-fueled engines and use its almost nine million pounds of thrust to climb through our swampy atmosphere and make for the moon.
It’s about time, NASA. Let’s light this candle and see if it burns.
Note: Tim Gagnon’s Artemis patch, and other mission patches, are available at https://space.abemblem.com/collections/space-artists-gallery-of-patches?fbclid=IwAR0N0dnkSnr89GjA2EBsvKt37bAgBF27mi_NtxUKkWcIQ7e5BqIPqUjo_Lo