KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Florida–Taller than the Statue of Liberty, the ochre rocket thundered into the sky around 1: 47 A.M. ET, clearing the darkness with a searing column fire and sending shudders through Cape Canaveral (Fla.) Bound to the moon, it carried an uncrewed capsule and a bounty scientific payloads . Its most important cargo is a psychic slice the “American Dream”, a promise that the U.S., at least in spaceflight remains exceptional with its capabilities, ambitions, and achievements.
Tonight’s launch ought to have been a success. It was in many ways. It was also the culmination a long, frustrating and difficult campaign to get the beleaguered rocket on the ground.
Thousands of people crowded the roads surrounding Kennedy Space Center to see what can still be called one the most spectacular spectacles in recent history : NASA’s Artemis I mission, the first flight of its new Space Launch System (SLS), rocket and Orion spacecraft. Some of the spectators were making their third visit to Florida’s Space Coast, the historic epicenter of U.S. Spaceflight where Apollo astronauts first launched to the Moon half-century ago. Then there were the NASA leaders, who were blue-clad members of the agency’s astronaut corps and hundreds of caffeine-addicted space reporters.
“Well, for once I might be speechless,” launch director Charlie Blackwell-Thompson told her team after the launch. “What you did today will inspire generations .”
Nearly 3 months have passed since the first two launches by NASA. Both of these failed launch attempts were canceled because of difficulties filling the massive SLS fuel tanks .. When dangerous forecasts forced the rocket to return to safety at the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB), in September, Hurricane Ian stopped a third attempt. When NASA finally returned the stack to the pad in November, Hurricane Nicole struck–before NASA could return the rocket to shelter at the VAB.
“I think it’s safe to say for all of us, we obviously would not have wanted to stay out there,” NASA’s Jim Free, associate administrator for exploration systems development, told reporters on Nov. 11. The VAB is the best place to keep the vehicle in such situations. We couldn’t make it back to VAB safely. We stayed right where we were .”
The storm hammered the SLS with winds blowing at up to 100 miles per hour, tearing off sealants and presenting mission managers with an almost unthinkably bad predicament: Is it safe to launch a $4.1-billion rocket and spacecraft that have just weathered a category 1 storm?
Officials decided to let the dice roll and launch the mission. If the entire Artemis I mission succeeds, it will be the first step towards returning humans to the moon surface.
“This is a big moment of truth for NASA, similar to a ‘return to flight’ situation following a disaster,” says space historian Jordan Bimm of the University of Chicago. “Does NASA still have the capability to launch human spaceflight?” It’s been 11 years since NASA last launched a human-rated spacecraft, and this is an entirely new system, long in development.”
NASA have indicated that there are several off-ramps available in case Orion faces challenges that could threaten its survival. But if, after its 25.5-day journey, the capsule safely splashes down in the Pacific Ocean, the stage is set for Artemis II, which could carry a four-person crew into lunar orbit as early as 2024. As the Artemis program unfolds, Orion and the SLS could place the first woman and person with color on the moon’s surface, build a space station in lunar orbit and establish a crewed lunar post. They could also send humans beyond Earth’s cratered celestial companion, possibly even to Mars.
But the rationale behind the program, which is estimated to eat more than $90 billion of taxpayer money by the end of 2025, is hazy at best. Experts wonder why we are returning humans to the moon’s surface. Is it for science? Is it for national pride? Or to satisfy an innate human desire for new horizons. How many times are you willing to put in the effort to get these missions off the ground.
” “It is noble and wonderful to pursue the principles of’science and exploration’,” Bimm states. He adds that the Artemis program, as it is envisioned, “reminds me [British explorer George] Mallory” saying he climbed Mount Everest “because it’s there”. Which was a b.s. nonanswer.”
According to Lori Garver, NASA’s former deputy administrator and a well-known critic of the Artemis hardware, the program’s pragmatic purpose is to secure the U.S.’s preeminence in spaceflight–although some of that seems to have been lost in the clamber to the moon. “The goals are not about destinations to me. She says that the goals are what you, as a nation want to achieve. “I believe the U.S. is in a strong leadership position in space. But we should be focusing more on maintaining that lead and expanding that lead than repeating past .”
Orion in the Spotlight
Even before the first two scrubs, and the unfortunately timed hurricanes, the stakes were already sky-high for today’s launch, with more than $23 billion of SLS development costs to date along for the ride. A rocket is inherently a delicately controlled bomb, with all of the associated risks. But the SLS isn’t just any rocket. It is a heavy-lift system that, in future iterations, could haul in excess of 100,000 pounds of crew and cargo to the moon and beyond. And in its present form, it already produces 8.8 million pounds of thrust–more than that of the iconic Apollo-era Saturn V–as it slips Earth’s gravitational grip. Orion, a multibillion dollar spacecraft, is perched on top.
Ordinarily, the Orion capsule would be protected from any launch mishaps by an abort system tucked inside the pointy cap at the rocket’s apex–a set of three motors delivered by Northrop Grumman that can hurl the capsule away from a malfunctioning booster and do so with gusto: the main abort motor can propel Orion from zero to 400 miles an hour in just two seconds.
“The launch abort system is designed to pull the crew capsule away in case there is an emergency on either the launch pad or during the ascent phase,” said Debbie Korth, Orion’s deputy program manager, to reporters during a briefing before the first launch attempt. “We’re trying to outrun any SLS issues during launch .”
Doug Hurley, a former NASA astronaut and military pilot who flew space shuttle missions and commanded the first crewed mission of SpaceX’s Dragon capsule in 2020, told Scientific American that having an abort system is a relief for everyone aboard a rocket–and for their families back on the ground.
It’s amazing to be able to get on a rocket and know that even if things go wrong, you still have a chance to get back home to your family. Hurley, Northrop Grumman’s senior vice president of business development, says that it’s something they didn’t have in the shuttle. It’s a great piece of mind to possess .”
Because no humans are onboard for the Artemis I mission, Orion’s main abort motor is inactive. The SLS has done its job so far. The rocket lifted off after a period of maximum dynamic pressure in atmosphere. It then throttled its main engines and delivered Orion into Earth orbit. Then the rocket’s core stage detached and began an ignominious descent to the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, leaving the crew capsule and the upper stage, called the interim cryogenic propulsion system (ICPS), to continue their journey.
The mission’s next major challenge began approximately an hour and a quarter after launch. The ICPS had to execute a long engine burn called translunar injection (TLI) to reach the moon. For 18 minutes, it fired its engines, accelerating the Orion spacecraft from 17,500 miles an hour to 22,000 miles an hour–the speed required to shrug off Earth’s gravity and instead cling to the moon.
Orion could have missed the Moon if the burn went wrong. NASA officials were so eager to perform the critical TLI on this test flight that they refused to fly if it would result in the loss of the spacecraft. “We would be ‘go’ on this flight for conditions that we would normally be ‘no-go’ for on a crewed flight, in the interest of crew safety,” said Mike Sarafin, Artemis I’s mission manager at NASA, during a late summer prelaunch briefing. “That is a unique feature of this uncrewed flight testing, and we will press on and press uphill until we’re almost certain we’re going lose” the vehicle.
PostTLI, Orion separated from the ICPS and sailed alone to the moon. The spacecraft will continue its mission flying on its own using its propulsion and navigation systems.
“There are certain cases that could come up that could cause us to come home early,” said NASA’s associate administrator Bob Cabana to reporters before the first launch attempt. “And that’s okay. We have contingencies.” But, he said, “The main objective that we really want out of this test flight is stressing the heat shield–getting to test that Orion heat shield at lunar orbit velocities
If Orion returns safely from Earth, it will open up new possibilities for humankind’s offworld future. These possibilities will not only involve expensive Artemis hardware but also bulky and expensive. Garver states that Orion and SLS worked perfectly on the test flight, making it unstoppable for its next flight.
Lessons from a Lunar Return
The next flight, Artemis II, would be similar in profile to 1968’s Apollo 8 mission, which carried three astronauts into lunar orbit and back. Scheduled for 2024, Artemis II would then be followed by an even more complex and historic mission, Artemis III, which would at last return humans to the lunar surface for the first time since 1972.
But it is not clear why NASA is following such a ambitious schedule to push more boot prints into moondust. Bimm states that Artemis’ driving motivation is not as clear as the Apollo missions. These missions had a clear and urgent political goal to demonstrate American technological superiority during the cold war. However, Artemis’ motives are far less clear than Apollo missions. “The ‘why” part of Artemis has not been clearly articulated or formulated. This lack of urgency could lead to the program being cut, transferred to private companies, or altered in another way, even if everything goes well.”
Teasel Muir-Harmony, a space historian at the National Air and Space Museum and curator of its Apollo collection, adds that, in addition to technical prowess, the Apollo missions were meant to influence the political trajectory of independent nations during the cold war. She says that Artemis’ purpose is not to change the world’s perception of the U.S., or to align with them.
Even a burgeoning race with China for space seems like a good excuse, at least as far the lunar surface is concerned. Garver states, “We’ve been there; we’ve won this race.” The very first Artemis astronaut to make lunar landfall, she notes, would merely be the 13th human to walk on the moon’s surface.
David Parker, director of human and robotic space exploration for the European Space Agency, argues that visions of a thriving lunar outpost are a natural outgrowth of humankind’s tendency to push the boundaries of where we can live and work. He says that we have seen something very similar on this planet with the development in Antarctica.
“Robert Scott and Roald Amundsen raced to the South Pole in 1911, and then nobody bothered going to the Antarctic for another 50 years. Scientific American told him that there are now research stations there doing all kinds of research. It’s about expanding places where human beings live .”
Despite not having a strong sense or purpose, Orion and the SLS have broad, bipartisan political support. And the Artemis program, established in 2017, long after both the SLS and Orion had begun development, successfully endured the transition between presidential administrations–a perilous time when problematic federal projects are traditionally culled. Muir-Harmony believes its survival bodes well for its long-term viability, even though it has been a boondoggle to the space agency.
Perhaps there are lessons to learn from the response to other late and over-budget projects in NASA’s portfolio–such as the James Webb Space Telescope, or JWST.
“When you look back at the experience with Apollo, the experience even with JWST in the past few months and how that has brought together humanity around the globe with the excitement of learning new things…I don’t know how you don’t get excited about Artemis, to be honest with you,” says Daniel Dumbacher, who oversaw the SLS’s initial development while he was at NASA and now serves as executive director of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics.
As with the SLS and Orion, contractors delivered JWST years late and billions of dollars over budget. It also needed to survive a risky deployment phase in which any of 344 single points of failure could have spelled disaster for the mission. But in the end, it worked. No one is complaining about the high price tag of JWST’s infrared eye, which reveals the cosmos in new ways. Astronomers are coming up with new questions that they haven’t thought of.
“Maybe Artemis missions will do a similar job with human exploration–help build that new capability, sustainable on the moon, then expand out to Mars,” Dumbacher thinks. It’s going to open new economic opportunities .”
Maybe this will be the case, but it’s possible that it won’t. JWST was created with one purpose: to look back in time and see the universe as it was at the time when the first stars and galaxies emerged from the primordial gloom. Also, to connect the dots between these infant structures and the world we know. There was only one way to do this: build a giant telescope. This instrument would have to be tucked into a rocket fairing and unfold in the air.
The SLS and Orion do not tick the same boxes. Researchers have many ideas to leverage Artemis’s rockets for transformative science. However, the lunar-return program lacks clear motives. This is aside from political posturing and providing hardware to reach a specific destination. Hardware that was arguably not designed to voyage to Mars or the moon, but to maintain momentum built up over the past half-century of inconsistent federal funding in civil spaceflight. Orion and the SLS are intended to be the future of NASA, but they could end up relegating NASA to the past. There are other ways to send humans deep space, which are cheaper and more efficient. If Artemis succeeds in returning humans to the lunar surface, critics may be just as silent as those who rallied against JWST’s cancellation.
” “From my perspective, it is our obligation to the next generation-and all generations that follow–to keep pushing forward and learning,” Dumbacher states.