NASA's mission to the moon is about far more than cost

NASA's mission to the moon is about far more than cost

In March 2019, Vice President Pence called for NASA to accelerate its human exploration program known as “Artemis,” returning American astronauts to the surface of the moon by 2024 rather than 2028 per the previous plan. The announcement injected some much-needed urgency into the program. A revitalized space industry was at the ready. On the government side, NASA was completing the only crew vehicle designed for deep space, Orion; a next generation super-heavy launch vehicle (SHLV), the Space Launch System (SLS); and Exploration Ground Systems (EGS) to support them. These systems provide the backbone upon which additional in-space infrastructure will be built, first at the moon and later on Mars.  

At the same time, new manufacturing methods, technologies and advanced computing capabilities have reduced costs, encouraged new entrants and attracted billions of dollars in the entrepreneurial space sector. Noting these successes, some question why commercial systems now being deployed in low Earth orbit should not be used for deep space, instead of the larger and more expensive systems designed for the moon and Mars. In fact, given the progress being made in the private sector, some ask why the national systems are needed at all.  

The answers are clear: One technical, the other geopolitical. 

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First, the Orion and SLS vehicles in production for deep space necessarily have capabilities far in excess of those designed for low Earth orbit (LEO). Navigation, communications, life support, radiation protectionpayload lift and volume — all are significantly enhanced, designed for the extra rigors of safe launch, transit and operation in deep space and the speeds, stresses and heat of return.  

For example, the environmental control and life support systems (ECLSS) designed for crewed LEO spacecraft do not meet the requirements for longer-duration lunar missions. For another, it takes a super heavy launch vehicle with much more lift to get large payloads from the Earth to the moon and beyond relative to LEO. Simply put, substituting one spacecraft for another will not work.

Second, government-owned systems are still needed because space remains a competitive domain among nations. A 2019 report by the Defense Intelligence Agency pointed out that U.S. capabilities in space motivate other nations to compete. For example, China and Russia have announced development of SHLVs for deep space exploration, presumably with crew vehicles to follow. Extending and enhancing space-based capabilities enables these countries to better support their military, commercial and civilian applications across the board. 

As a result, the role played by national assets in deep space cannot be fulfilled solely by privately owned systems. Bringing someone else’s rocket and crew vehicle to the geopolitical table does not convey the same intent. A national presence, backed by the full faith and measure of Congress, focuses international attention and creates incentives for partnerships around the globe.  

These factors help explain why decisions about what systems the U.S. will deploy to the moon and Mars do not easily boil down to a simplistic cost equation, though driving costs down as far as possible is a good thing. National security considerations, including support for a skilled aerospace and defense workforce – itself a critical national asset – are wrapped into the costs of the programs together with the price tag for supporting infrastructure. This means that costs for NASA’s complex programs are not aligned with those of commercial programs for good reason: All the national asset costs are carried by the former while the latter reap the benefits and avoid much of the overhead. 

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NASA’s approach to the Artemis program makes use of both government and private systems and is summarized in Space Policy Directive 1 (SPD-1), which calls for the NASA administrator to “lead an innovative and sustainable program of exploration with commercial and international partners to enable human expansion across the solar system…”  

Significantly, the goals laid out in the directive are aligned with those established by successive Congresses across almost 15 years of enabling law. Together these make up a national space policy framework which, when coupled with Orion, SLS, EGS, the lunar Gateway, commercial launch vehicles and the Human Landing Systems under development, will hasten American return to the moon and lay the groundwork for landing humans on Mars. 

Mary Lynne Dittmar is a member of the National Space Council Users’ Advisory Group (UAG), a member of the FAA Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC), a member of the National Academies Space Studies Board (SSB) and the president and CEO of the Coalition for Deep Space Exploration, a non-lobbying industry association supporting NASA’s programs in human space exploration and science.