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That’s why NASA’s Artemis I mission is so rare and so remarkable

That's why NASA's Artemis I mission is so rare and so remarkable
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NASA's Orion spacecraft descends towards the Pacific Ocean after a successful mission on Sunday.
Enlarge / NASA’s Orion spacecraft descends towards the Pacific Ocean after a successful mission on Sunday.

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The first step of a journey is often the most difficult. So it’s worth pausing for a moment to celebrate that NASA has just taken the essential first step towards establishing a permanent presence in space.

Against a backdrop of blue skies and white clouds, the Orion spacecraft crashed into the Pacific Ocean a few hundred kilometers off the Baja Peninsula on Sunday. That ended the Artemis I mission, a 25.5-day spaceflight that showed NASA is on the verge of flying humans into space again.

That hasn’t happened in half a century. Sometimes it seemed like it would never happen again. But now it definitely is occurrence.

NASA’s journey back to the moon and possibly one day Mars has been lethargic at times. The political process that has brought NASA to this point over the past few decades has been chaotic 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 their human space exploration program has a very, very real thing is.

It took a long time.

false starts

The last Apollo mission ended this month in 1972. For a time, US presidents and the space agency were content to focus human exploration in low Earth orbit, with the development of the US space shuttle and plans to build one big space station.

Eventually, however, some people began to get restless. On the 20th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing in 1989, President George Bush announced the Space Exploration Initiative, a long-term commitment to human exploration of space. The plan was to complete a space station and then by the turn of the century humans on the moon would begin building a base there.

What happened next wasn’t particularly pretty. Some people at NASA, including Administrator Dick Truly, didn’t entirely agree with Bush’s idea. They feared that the lunar plans would disrupt the space station. NASA famously conducted and released a 90-day study that suggested Bush’s plan could cost half a trillion dollars or more. With Congress having no appetite for such a budget, the Moon plans died.

They would lie dormant for almost a decade and a half before President George W. Bush would revive them. Like his father, Bush had a bold plan to send humans back to the moon, where they would learn how to operate in space, and then fly 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, chose a large and particularly expensive architecture – the Ares I and Ares V rockets – to take humans back to the moon. International partners have been largely ignored. And then neither the President nor Congress fought for the full funding that the program needed to survive.

Constellation was years late and well over budget when President Obama canceled it in 2010. It was then that Congress stepped in and saved the Orion spacecraft, which had been launched in 2005, and finalized the design for a new rocket, the Space Launch System. The development of these programs has meandered over much of the past decade, consuming more than $30 billion, with no clear goal. That changed in late 2017 when Vice President Mike Pence announced NASA would land humans on the moon.

This led to the formulation of the Artemis program in 2018 and 2019. It was far from perfect, but more than functional. In addition, it built on past failures. While the Constellation program had a purely government-run architecture, Artemis has increasingly relied on commercial spaces. Artemis also sought to establish international cooperation from the start 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 left as a country, as a government,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said Sunday after Orion landed. “Today we are not only going with international partners, but also with trading partners. It is the beginning of a new beginning.”

A rare alignment

Myriad engineering challenges remain ahead of the Artemis program, including the development and testing of SpaceX’s complex Starship lunar lander and Axiom’s work on spacesuits capable of operating in the lunar environment. Both contracts, awarded in 2021 and 2022 respectively, will likely take time and patience to bear fruit.

None of this is going to happen anytime soon. Artemis II is They are unlikely to fly before 2025and the actual lunar landing mission won’t come until later this decade, maybe 2027 or 2028.

But here it is instructive to think long-term. The other two post-Apollo deep space programs failed because they lacked political support, funding, or both. Artemis is different. It has both political support and funding. Notably, virtually every aspect of the space political firmament—the White House, Congress, international allies, traditional aerospace, commercial space travel, and space advocacy—has aligned with the broad goals of Artemis.

This kind of support hasn’t been seen for a program like this since the 1960’s and Apollo. And that zeal only crystallized in the crucible of the national tragedy that followed the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. For Artemis, there was nothing like this unifying event. Rather, elements of this program have had to survive through four different and very contrasting administrations, from Bush to Obama to Trump to Biden.

“You see a nation torn by partisanship,” Nelson said. “That does not exist here. NASA is bipartisan. Rs and Ds alike come together to support us.”

Amazingly, politics is then sorted. Now it comes down to the technical implementation. Engineering is tough, but unlike space politics, it’s at least based on common sense. Artemis I has proven to be a technical success. Do you think SpaceX can’t build a rocket to land on the moon? Or can Axiom, working with a NASA design, not make space suits to keep the lunar dust at bay?

Of course they can and they will.

Lack of coordination?

NASA is also taking steps to address one of the last major problems with Artemis, a lack of coordination. The Johnson Space Center in Houston is responsible for Orion and trains the astronauts. The Marshall Space Flight Center in northern Alabama builds the SLS rocket and directs development of the lunar module. Kennedy Space Center launches the missions.

As a result, several organizations and outside consultants have criticized NASA for not having a “program office” to coordinate the myriad elements that will go into the Artemis mission.

For example, the Office of the Inspector General of NASA recently explained“Unlike the first manned missions to the lunar surface as part of the Apollo program, NASA does not have a general NASA program manager who oversees the Artemis missions, or a prime contractor, as in the Space Shuttle program, who acts as lead systems integrator .” The concern is that without such an official, the program would lack cohesion and struggles for influence would ensue.

However, such an office does indeed come. 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 is still in the development phase and he doesn’t want to go into details just yet. However, it sounds like his role will include overall planning and coordination for the complex flight to the lunar surface – bringing the SLS rocket, Orion spacecraft and Human Landing System program together under one roof.

Sarafin seems an excellent choice to lead the development of Artemis III. He guided the Artemis I mission through countless delays, challenges with liquid hydrogen refueling, and overcame not one but two hurricanes in the weeks before the mission finally lifted off. And yet, through it all, he and his team brought home a spacecraft in great condition that met or exceeded all of its goals by landing 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 deserved. Given the widespread support for what is happening today, NASA now has a credible way to not only explore the moon’s south pole, but learn to live and work in space, and eventually send humans deeper into the sun’s system.

“We did the impossible and made it possible,” Nelson said of Apollo. “Now we’re going to do it again, but for a different purpose. This time we go back to the moon to learn, live, work, create.”

The greatest achievement imaginable for Artemis would be that she has a consistency that she didn’t have during the Apollo era. Given this weekend’s success, such a future awaits for NASA. They and their partners just have to keep working as brilliantly as they did last month.

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