Artemis 1 is a triumph for NASA and the world
NASA’s heavy lift Space Launch System (SLS) has certainly faced criticism. It is too expensive and too complex. The SLS is also not a sustainable rocket for sending people back to the moon.
All of those criticisms are valid. However, NASA’s monster rocket has just sent an uncrewed Orion space capsule around the moon. The launch of the Artemis 1 mission is an eloquent answer to the critics, at least in the short term.
NASA Administrator Bill Nelson must feel especially vindicated. He has been instrumental in birthing the Space Launch System as a result of a “Faustian bargain,” as former NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver put it, that also birthed the commercial crew program. Over budget and behind schedule, the SLS finally lifted off, powering a mission to the moon.
A few days later, the Orion spaceship performed a rocket burn that sent it just 81 miles over the surface of the moon. A second burn placed it in a distant retrograde orbit around the moon. Finally, the Orion will initiate two more maneuvers that will send it back to a splashdown just off the coast of California.
With the exception of a few anomalies that NASA describes as “benign,” the Artemis 1 mission has been a resounding success. The mission has already received praise from the White House and Congress. The Biden administration decided to continue the program, first started by President Donald Trump. Congress has continued to fund the effort to return astronauts to the moon. Artemis 1 has vindicated both decisions.
The final milestone that Artemis 1 must achieve to make the mission a complete success is the splashdown. The Orion is scheduled to land in the ocean off southern California on Dec. 11. If the mission ends in a successful splashdown, it will lead to future voyages of discovery. Artemis II will send a crew of four around the moon, the Artemis program’s version of Apollo 8.
Artemis III will be the history-making event, the one that, having occurred, will change the world forever. Humans from the planet Earth will land on the moon and walk upon its surface, preparing the way for the Lunar Base Camp. They will travel to the lunar surface on a SpaceX Starship Human Landing System. NASA officials think that people will be living and working on the moon before this decade is out. The moon will have been brought into the sphere of human activity.
By executing the Artemis I mission, NASA has proven that it can do two things. It has proven that it can actually launch the complex Space Launch System successfully, working through last-minute anomalies that always crop up when operating a new rocket. More importantly, the space agency and its international and commercial partners have proven that it can provide just a hint of the awe and inspiration that the Apollo program gave to the world.
The news media has not yet given Artemis the wall-to-wall coverage that it did Apollo. While NASA’s latest mission has certainly been eclipsed by other topics, at least the media has started to cover the mission to the moon, perhaps slowly realizing that something wonderful has started to happen.
Presuming the Artemis I mission ends with a successful splashdown, how does NASA and its partners sustain the program to send astronauts back to the moon?
First, NASA must get a better handle on operating the Space Launch System. The Artemis I launch suffered several delays because of anomalies inherent in a rocket that was designed as much by politicians as engineers. The space agency should also start to explore cheaper, more commercial alternatives to getting astronauts to the moon and back. Just as the commercial crew system replaced the space shuttle, some future spacecraft should, in the fullness of time, replace the SLS.
Finally, NASA and its partners need to continue to educate the public about the benefits of returning to the moon. Apollo petered out because the space agency and its supporters could not articulate a reason for continuing the first moon program. NASA does return quite a bit to the economy. It would be a great tragedy should the space agency fail to convince the people who pay for its budget that returning to the moon is worth the cost.
Mark R. Whittington is the author of space exploration studies “Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon?” as well as “The Moon, Mars and Beyond,” and “Why is America Going Back to the Moon?” He blogs at Curmudgeons Corner.