We’re About to See How Serious America Is About Returning to the Moon

We’re About to See How Serious America Is About Returning to the Moon

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla.–The south pole of the moon is a stunning place. The moon’s dust is fine and gleams in the unfiltered sunlight, while towering mountains bask in constant sunshine. Plunging craters exist in permanent shadow and hide pockets of ice in their gray rock, the water frozen and undisturbed for as long as 3 billion years.

It is here, somewhere along this silent terrain, that NASA wants to land a new crew of astronauts. These visitors, like those before them, will dress up and take a stroll in low gravity. a little while . before the lunar walk is possible. NASA must develop a reliable transport system to safely and securely take people to the moon before they can again walk on it. The first major test for that system is coming soon.

Next week, NASA is scheduled to conduct the first test launch of the rocket that will someday propel astronauts toward the moon. Space Launch System is the rocket that will lift a capsule-shaped astronaut into orbit. It’s the strongest ever constructed. No people will be on board this first time, only a trio of mannequins covered in sensors. The capsule, named Orion, will go on a journey around the moon and then back to Earth, where it must survive a fiery reentry through the planet’s atmosphere for a splashdown at sea. The test flight is one of a number of lunar missions that will be undertaken, each more complicated and dangerous than the previous. This is intended to encourage a long-term lunar program. NASA plans to make the first landing attempt of America’s modern moon effort in 2025, and has made it a point that the crew will include–unlike the all-male, all-white Apollo groups–a woman and a person of color.

You could be forgiven for not knowing that any of this is happening. Most Americans are probably unaware that NASA has such ambitious moon plans, let alone that the rocket developed for the job has a name. (The Space Launch System is not exactly the snazziest brand; the “Mega Moon Rocket,” which NASA officials occasionally use instead, might be catchier.) Even the program’s more evocative designation–Artemis, for the sister of Apollo in Greek mythology–is not yet a household term. You might be thinking, NASA already went to the moon over 50 years ago. What is it going to do there this time?

The agency has big dreams for this next chapter of America’s lunar life, bigger than Apollo. It doesn’t just want to re-create Neil Armstrong’s famous first step with a new cast of characters–though it will certainly do that–but also reach for new firsts, including a space station in orbit around the moon and perhaps even a base on the surface. Artemis is complex and difficult. There are risks and uncertainties everywhere. NASA must not only outdo its past but also create a new spaceflight environment with commercial rockets. The United States is committed to this new moon, and the Space Launch System’s inaugural launch could capture Americans’ imagination and make them care.

The first Apollo missions landed near the moon’s equator, where the lighting was better, and flatter plains served NASA’s objective at the time: putting human beings safely on the surface. Although they landed near the equator for later missions, these astronauts touched down in more rugged terrain, offering a different perspective and allowing them to explore new areas. By Apollo 17, the sixth and final lunar landing, the American public’s interest in the program, measured in TV viewership, had waned. The networks cut in for the big L moments–launch, liftoff, and landing–but “pictures, no matter how incredibly good their technical quality, of barren moonscapes and floating astronauts become ordinary and even tedious rather quickly,” The New York Times’ TV critic wrote in 1972. By then the space race had ended. The first triumphant landing had created enough momentum–and equipment–for several more, “but there was no reason to keep going once the race was won,” John Logsdon, a longtime space historian and the founder of the Space Policy Institute, at George Washington University, told me. President Richard Nixon directed NASA to focus the human-spaceflight program on building a fleet of space shuttles for Earth orbit; no president made a real push for a lunar comeback until George W. Bush in 2004.

By then, the plump budgets that fueled the Apollo program had vanished, and space programs were unlikely to survive presidential transitions. Barack Obama cancelled Bush’s lunar project but kept the plans for a heavy-lift rocket that could carry people into deep space using leftover space-shuttle engines, boosters and other technology. Although the Space Launch System was unable to meet its budget and fell behind schedule for many years, bipartisan support has been given. The program is responsible for thousands of jobs across every state in America. Artemis is an addition to the NASA catalog. It was created by Donald Trump’s administration , and adopted by the Biden administration.

Per NASA’s current plans, the next decade of spaceflight would unfold like this: The Space Launch System takes off this month, and then the Orion capsule performs well. Next year, astronauts will make the same trip, looping around the moon as the Apollo 8 astronauts once did in 1968. In 2025, another mission would actually land. The Space Launch would launch about once a year. A small station would be built in orbit around moon. More landings would follow, with stops on the floating outpost on the way down. Then, by 2030, NASA aims to have built a habitat on the surface–the first in human history–with rovers and cozy-enough infrastructure to support missions for a week or longer. Astronauts will continue to learn about the celestial partner of Earth every step of their journey. Many of them will also be scientists. Of course there is the plan and then there is reality. Most government space projects miss their self-imposed deadlines, so don’t schedule your 2025 moon-landing party yet. The Artemis program’s architecture is complex, and has many moving parts. The Orion capsule, unlike the Apollo command module and lander, doesn’t include a lander. Artemis’ lander must travel to the moon separately, rendezvous with Orion and take astronauts to its surface. SpaceX is already developing that technology for NASA, but a report by the space agency’s inspector general has described the timelines on the effort as “unrealistic.” NASA is also behind schedule on pressurized spacesuits for moonwalks; after 15 years of struggling to develop the garments in-house, the agency just this summer contracted two aerospace companies to do the work. Since the Apollo era NASA relied heavily on partnerships with private businesses to accomplish its work. But in the Artemis period, NASA doesn’t only have partners but also competition. In many discussions of the Space Launch System’s long-term future, there’s a rocket-shaped elephant in the room: Elon Musk’s Starship. SpaceX is constructing a powerful rocket that, like the Space Launch System, is designed to launch people toward the moon and Mars. If there’s a new kind of space race in the 2020s, SpaceX is winning. The Space Launch System is an expendable vehicle, which means that next week, after a successful launch, the system’s main core and side boosters, depleted of propellant, will end up in the ocean. The SpaceX rocket will be reusable, and Musk has said that a prototype could reach orbit for the first time later this year. And NASA needs Starship to prove itself for the Artemis architecture to succeed; SpaceX’s moon lander will need help from Starship rockets to reach lunar orbit and check in with the Orion capsule.

A situation in which NASA’s lunar rocket fails its initial tests and SpaceX’s launch succeeds isn’t entirely absurd. And even if both succeed, “if you’re having a Starship flying, you’re probably not going to be able to continue spending billions of taxpayer dollars to compete,” Lori Garver, a former deputy NASA administrator and author of the memoir Escaping Gravity: My Quest to Transform NASA and Launch a New Space Age, told me.

At the moment, though, the Space Launch System is on the launchpad, the only available rocket that can pull off what NASA wants to do right now. A flawless launch of the brand new moon rocket by NASA would be a vindication of its approach to spaceflight and send out a strong signal of American strength. Failure would, however, be a humiliating setback for an expensive, late-scheduled government program. “We’re counting on a lot of things to come together, and I think in a test flight where, if it’s not 100 percent successful, NASA has to regroup and have another test flight,” Garver said. “And that has the potential to dislodge the whole program.”

But it won’t necessarily doom the entire endeavor. “Once large human-spaceflight programs hit a tipping point of expenditures and political buy-in, they have serious inertia that carries them forward–assuming no catastrophes,” Casey Dreier, a senior space-policy adviser at the Planetary Society who has written extensively on Artemis’s political backdrop, told me. If Starship succeeds, it could, in theory, carry the program’s dreamier goals to realization; even if the Space Launch System begins to flounder, members of Congress could remain keen to protect the project (and its associated jobs). Although the public may remain skeptical or uninterested in Starship, it is certain that America will return to the moon.

The last time NASA tested a brand-new moon rocket was in November 1967. The first flight of the Saturn V, named Apollo 4, “marked the culmination of more than seven years of developmental activity in design, fabrication, testing and launch-site preparation by tens of thousands of workers in government, industry and universities,” a NASA report from the 1970s said. Although it took the Space Launch System a little longer to get to the launchpad than the Apollo flight, the Space Launch System will be departing from the Kennedy Space Center next week. It is located along Florida’s coast. In many ways, the atmosphere there hasn’t changed much since Apollo 4; astronauts are still flying T-38s over Cape Canaveral, whizzing past the launchpads.

In other ways, it is unrecognizable. There are facilities for SpaceX, Blue Origin (Jeff Bezos’s space company), scattered along the coast. Bezos has plans for a heavy-lift rocket too, a vehicle named New Glenn, named after the first American to orbit Earth, but that project is at least a year behind Musk’s. (Blue Origin had also competed for the coveted lunar-lander contract, but lost to SpaceX.) The space entrepreneurs have brought their billionaire-size baggage into space exploration, prompting questions about whom space is for–and why we bother to go at all, let alone dream of building space stations or temporary homes in stark places, hostile to human life. “I think the most compelling argument is that we’re human, and that’s what at least some humans do,” said Logsdon, who attended the Apollo 11 launch in 1969. “There is, I think, a desire to see what’s out there and, in a sense, expand the human experience.”

NASA will no doubt capture some attention when the rocket takes off on Monday, and certainly a few years from now, when astronauts may be sitting on top of it. Perhaps this time, after a few moon landings, the program won’t disappear as Apollo did. Maybe future generations will tire of the constant dispatches from the lunar surface as that TV critic said they had back in 1972. We are still far from that future, and further still from the future that, based on recent Earth-based research, suggests “astronauts may one day drink water from ancient moon volcanoes.” And the idea of astronauts sipping anything on Mars, which NASA wants to explore, too, is even more distant. The launchpad at which we will all be watching this week is the first step to any hope for an off-world future.

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