NASA faces its biggest test in decades

Last updated on August 28, 2022

NASA, after watching space billionaires capture the world’s attention, is looking to take some of the glory back.

As soon as Monday, the most powerful rocket the space agency has ever built will sling an uncrewed space capsule on a record 42-day journey around the moon and back.

The maiden launch of the Space Launch System rocket and the Orion space capsule, designated the Artemis I mission, is a make-or-break trial for NASA’s goal of building a permanent presence on the lunar surface.

The stakes are high: On the next mission, astronauts will be aboard.

It’s also NASA’s chance to show the world that it’s not just billionaire privateers who are charting the new space age and fueling public fascination with the prospect of exploring other worlds.

“The public still has great affection for NASA. There is not a better brand, certainly in government,” said Lori Garver, former deputy NASA administrator. She cited the awe and excitement over the first images captured by the James Webb Space Telescope.

“But the human spaceflight program is a little different,” she admitted. “SLS, human spaceflight, new astronaut class? Twitter likes are in the single-digit thousands. I don’t think in any world will Monday’s launch be on the order of the space telescope, yet we spent multiples of the amount.”

The James Webb telescope cost roughly $10 billion; the bill for the Artemis program is expected to be $90 billion by 2025, according to the NASA Inspector General.

The uncrewed mission will be the first and only rigorous test of the rocket and the space capsule before it takes astronauts around the moon in 2024 and then helps deliver them to the surface in 2025 to begin building a research station.

Much of the attention is on the SLS, the mega-rocket built by Boeing, Northrop Grumman, Aerojet Rocketdyne and other major aerospace contractors but is years behind schedule and billions over cost.

The Lockheed Martin-built Orion capsule, intended to carry four astronauts for 21 days, will travel twice as long as designed. And a crucial test will be of its novel heat shield, which reenter Earth’s atmosphere at a record 25,000 miles per hour.

Less high-profile attention has been paid to the network of specialized ground systems, including the massive structure that serves as the mobile launcher to deliver the rocket and capsule to the launch pad and has also experienced serious development problems and cost overruns.

It means more disparate and highly complex systems than NASA has been relying on in recent years.

“We are a hardware-rich program,” James Free, associate NASA administrator for the Exploration Systems Development Mission Directorate, told reporters on Friday. “That does not happen in NASA all that often.”

The mission, therefore, requires a series of historic engineering feats on a scale that NASA has not attempted since the Space Shuttle program in the 1980s.

“Artemis I is that first step down this path, when we talk about sustained exploration on the lunar surface and getting on to Mars,” Free said. “We are exercising the systems [on Artemis I] to a great extent to make sure that when we put crew on [Artemis] II the vehicle is ready to go.”

There is little room for error — technically or politically.

“The first mission of an untried vehicle is an ambitious and complex one,” said Scott Pace, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University and former executive secretary of the White House National Space Council.

“Congressional support could certainly erode if it doesn’t work,” added Greg Autry, a former NASA adviser and professor of space policy at the Thunderbird School of Global Management at Arizona State University.

A major knock on the SLS rocket, which has been nearly two decades in the making, is that it is based heavily on older designs. For example, it is expendable, which means the rocket is discarded after placing Orion in orbit.

A new generation of commercial space companies such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, meanwhile, is steadily perfecting reusable and lower-cost alternatives for venturing into deep space.

SpaceX demonstrated in 2015 the first reusable space rockets that return to Earth and in 2020 delivered American astronauts from U.S. soil to the International Space Station aboard its commercial Dragon crew capsule.

It is now testing the potentially game-changing Starship, a reusable, all-in-one spaceship designed to lift off from Earth and carry astronauts directly to the surface of the moon — or Mars — and back.

NASA already plans to transfer its astronauts to the Starship in the moon’s orbit on the first mission to reach the lunar surface in 2025.

The other issue dogging the program is its cost.

SLS is considered hugely expensive — perhaps too expensive to be used for regular missions to the moon or eventually Mars — with an estimated price tag of up to $4 billion per launch, according to the NASA Inspector General.

“We understand that this program needs to be sustained. And we’re going to do our part to reduce costs,” Doug Hurley, senior director of business development at Northrop Grumman, said Friday when asked about the high operating costs at a NASA press conference.

But many predict pressure is only going to grow on NASA to seek alternatives as the moon program matures.

“I can’t imagine that they are going to fly a bird with the cost associated with the SLS as the key transportation system for the moon for the next 20 or 30 years,” said Robert Walker, former chair of the House Space Committee and now a space industry consultant.

He predicted that SpaceX will soon “prove the competency of the Starship and at some point Bezos is going to arrive on the scene here and have some alternative technology as well.

“If you look out even three or four years,” he added, “the options for NASA are likely to be pretty robust.”

“Let’s face it. If Starship is successful and operational, it will call into question SLS and Orion,” Garver said.

Another challenge for NASA is capturing the public imagination — and fueling a new generation of scientists and engineers — by landing the first woman and person of color on the moon.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said the goal is no less than to replicate the impact of the Apollo missions to the moon in the 1960s and 1970s.

“STEM-trained workers swelled in the years during and following the height of Apollo and unlocked untapped human potential — the modern computing age, the multi-billion-dollar satellite industry, and so much more,” he told POLITICO. “Now, it’s the Artemis generation.

“There’s nothing better than seeing a little kid’s eyes light up, seeing that spark go off,” he added. “NASA shows them that if they can dream it, they can be it. Artemis I is just the beginning to a new era in spaceflight.”

Not everyone is so sure. “I think more people know what Elon Musk is doing than what NASA is doing,” Autry said. “I feel there should be more general excitement. The space community of course is revved up. I’d like to have seen the White House talking about it more.”

On hand for the launch at Florida’s Kennedy Space Center will be Vice President Kamala Harris, who chairs the National Space Council, and a who’s who of current and former NASA leaders and astronauts.

She is expected to “speak about the United States’ leadership in space exploration and thank the NASA workforce, private sector partners, and international partners for their work,” the White House said in a statement on Friday.

To stoke public excitement, NASA has also enlisted some star power, including actors and musicians such as Jack Black, Chris Evans, Keke Palmer, Josh Groban and Herbie Hancock, along with the Philadelphia Orchestra and cellist Yo-Yo Ma.

The world will also be watching, including competitors Russia and China that are also pursuing human space exploration. Indeed, many see success as having significant implications for geopolitics.

Zhanna Malekos Smith, a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, predicts that a successful mission will boost the Artemis Accords, the international partnership of 20 nations that lays out a shared vision of principles for the exploration of the moon.

Artemis I, she said, will be “symbolic triumph for the global Artemis community‘s dedication to a safe and peaceful future for all humanity.”

For some veterans of the space program, however, the stakes are much bigger.

“Space dominance — and specifically the exploration and eventual settlement of the moon — play a great psychological role in forming the attitudes of people who ultimately will choose between tyranny and freedom,” Apollo 17 astronaut Harrison Schmitt wrote in an op-ed this week.

Added Pace: “The capabilities to be demonstrated are crucial to U.S. leadership in space.”