Here’s why NASA’s Artemis I mission is so rare and so awesome

Zoom in / NASA’s Orion spacecraft descends toward the Pacific Ocean after a successful mission Sunday.


The first step in a journey is often the hardest. So, it’s worth taking a moment to celebrate that NASA has just taken the essential first step on the path toward establishing a permanent presence in deep space.

Amid a backdrop of blue skies and white clouds, the Orion spacecraft plunged into the Pacific Ocean on Sunday a few hundred kilometers off the Baja Peninsula. That brought an end to the Artemis I mission, a 25.5-day spaceflight that showed NASA was about to start returning humans to deep space again.

This has not happened for half a century. At times, it seemed like it might never happen again. But now, that’s for sure is happening.

NASA’s progress toward the moon, and perhaps one day Mars, has been lethargic at times. The political process that has led NASA to this point in recent decades has been messy and driven by narrow ham projects. But on Sunday, it is undeniable that the process has brought NASA, the United States, and dozens of other countries participating in the Artemis program to the point where the program of human exploration of deep space is very real.

It’s been a long time.

false starts

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

But eventually, some people are starting to get worried. On the 20th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing, in 1989, President George Bush announced the Space Exploration Initiative, a far-reaching commitment to human exploration of deep space. The plan was to complete a space station, and then, by the end 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 Trulli, weren’t entirely on board with Bush’s idea. They were concerned that the lunar plans might disrupt the space station. Infamously, NASA conducted and leaked a 90-day study that suggested Bush’s plan could cost half a trillion dollars or more. Since Congress had no appetite for such a budget, the moon plans died.

They would have hibernated for nearly a decade and a half before President George W. Bush brought them back. Like his father, Bosch conceived of a bold plan to return humans to the Moon, where they would learn how to operate in deep space and then fly to Mars. This became the Constellation Program.

This vision was well received in the space community, but then three bad things happened. New NASA Administrator Mike Griffin has chosen a particularly large and expensive structure — the Ares 1 and Ares 5 rockets — to return humans to the Moon. International partners have been largely ignored. And then neither the President nor Congress fought for the full funding the program would need to survive.

Constellation was years behind, and over budget, when President Obama rescinded it in 2010. At that point, Congress stepped in and bailed out the Orion spacecraft, which had launched in 2005, and put together a design for a new rocket, the Space Launch System. . The development of these programs has faltered for most of the past decade, consuming more than $30 billion, with no clear destination. That changed in late 2017 when Vice President Mike Pence announced that NASA would land humans on the moon.

This led to Artemis being drafted in 2018 and 2019. It was far from perfect, but more than functional. Moreover, it has built on past failures. Whereas the Constellation Program had a purely governmental structure, Artemis increasingly leaned into commercial spaces. Artemis also sought to build international cooperation from the outset, 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 went as a country, as a government,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said Sunday after the Orion landing. “Today we go not only with international partners, but with business partners. It is the beginning of a new beginning.”

Rare alignment

Myriad technical challenges remain for the Artemis program, including development and testing of the SpaceX spacecraft, and Axiom’s work on spacesuits capable of operating in the lunar environment. These two contracts, which were awarded in 2021 and 2022 respectively, will likely require time and patience to bear fruit.

None of this will happen quickly. Artemis II is unlikely to fly before 2025, and the actual moon landing mission won’t come until later in the decade, possibly in 2027 or 2028.

But taking the long view is useful here. The other two deep space programs failed after Apollo because they lacked political support, funding, or both. Artemis is different. It has political support and funding. Remarkably, nearly every aspect of space policy—the White House, Congress, international allies, traditional aerospace, commercial space, and the space defense community—has aligned with the broad goals of Artemis.

This kind of support hasn’t existed for a program like this since the 1960s, and for the Apollo program. This enthusiasm was crystallized in the crucible of the national tragedy that followed the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. There was nothing quite like that unifying event for Artemis. Instead, elements of this program have had to survive through four different, fiercely opposed administrations, from Bush to Obama to Trump to Biden.

“You see a nation riven by partisanship,” Nelson said. “It just doesn’t exist here. NASA is not partisan. Rs and D’s alike come together to support us.”

Surprisingly, then, the policy is in order. Now it comes to the technical implementation. Engineering is tough, but at least it’s based on reason, unlike space politics. Artemis I has proven to be technically successful. Do you think SpaceX can’t build a rocket to land on the moon? Or that NASA-designed Axiom can’t manufacture spacesuits to keep lunar dust out?

Sure, they can, and they will.

Lack of coordination?

NASA is also taking steps to address one of the last major issues with Artemis, the lack of coordination. Johnson Space Center in Houston is responsible for Orion and astronaut training. Marshall Space Flight Center in north Alabama builds the SLS rocket and manages development of the lunar lander. Kennedy Space Center launched missions.

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

For example, NASA’s Office of Inspector General recently stated, “Unlike the first manned flights to the moon under the Apollo program, NASA does not have a NASA program general manager overseeing the Artemis missions or a prime contractor, as in the space shuttle program, As a leading system integrator. The concern is that without this official, the program will lack coherence and experience an internal struggle for influence.

However, such an office is already coming. Mike Sarafin, a NASA chief engineer who successfully served as mission director for Artemis 1, will become “mission development director” for Artemis 3. In an interview, Sarafin said the Artemis program office is still in the development stages, and that he doesn’t want to discuss details yet. However, it appears that its role will involve overall planning and coordination of the complex journey to the surface of the moon – bringing together the SLS rocket, Orion spacecraft and human landing system software under one roof.

Sarafin appears to be an excellent choice to lead the development of Artemis III. He’s guided the Artemis I mission through countless delays, overcoming challenges with liquid hydrogen fuel, and not one but two hurricanes in the weeks before the mission finally took off. However, through all of this, he and his team have brought home a spacecraft in great shape that met or exceeded all of its goals with its splashdown Sunday.

Another criticism of Artemis is that he simply repeats the Apollo program. If Artemis fails after a few missions, that criticism is well deserved. However, given a broad base of support for what’s happening today, NASA now has a credible path forward to not only exploring the lunar south pole, but learning to live and work in deep space, and eventually sending humans into the depths of the sun. System.

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

The greatest success imaginable for Artemis will be that he enjoys the permanence not enjoyed during the age of Apollo. In light of the success this weekend, such a future is in front of NASA. They and their partners just need to keep executing as brilliantly as they have for the past month.

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