NASA selects the next Artemis moonwalkers while SpaceX flies a Starship
Dec. 9, 2020 may well go down as a crucial day in America’s space history because of two separate but related events. One took place at the Kennedy Space Center. The other occurred in the skies over Boca Chica, Texas.
The last meeting of the National Space Council that Vice President Mike Pence is likely to preside over was conducted at the Kennedy Space Center. After the back patting over the progress the Trump administration has made in space policy and reports from various departments and agencies represented on the council, Pence announced the 18 astronauts who will comprise the Artemis Cadre. The first woman and the next man to walk on the moon will be drawn from this group.
The group of nine men and nine women, ethnically diverse, from a variety of backgrounds, is a mix of NASA veterans and rookies. Two, Victor Glover and Kate Rubins, are currently flying on the International Space Station (ISS). All will start training for missions to the moon, which will include instruction in field geology and other sciences.
Why select the next moonwalkers now, at least four years away from the next moon landing? Much of the reason is, frankly, political. By selecting the next Artemis astronauts, NASA has put a human face on the program. The idea is to make it harder for a future administration (i.e. Joe Biden’s) to cancel or even slow down the lunar program. Who would deny these American heroes a chance to push back the frontiers of space, to provide the world, ravaged by the pandemic, war and political acrimony, a reason for pride and joy?
The Artemis Cadre’s members also come from across the country, from a variety of states of the union. Every state has a congressional delegation who is very interested in seeing a favorite son or daughter go to the moon. Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) offered congratulations to Raja Chari, who hails from Cedar Falls, on Twitter. Members of Congress like Ernst will be more likely to vote for funds to see Artemis go forward as a result of the astronaut selection.
NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine promised that the Artemis Cadre is only the beginning. Future astronauts will be selected as Artemis moonwalkers. Some will come from other, allied countries. The international aspect of Artemis provides America with a lot of soft political power. Other countries are said to be quite enthusiastic about the program, another argument that it should continue.
In the meantime, at the SpaceX test facility in Boca Chica, Elon Musk and his engineers were writing space history again. The SN8 (Serial Number 8), the prototype of the Starship rocket, rose in the skies over Texas. As the Starship rose, first one, then two, then finally all three of its Raptor engines cut out. The rocket, a huge, stainless steel tower, presented its belly to the ground as it plunged down, using air resistance to slow itself.
At the last minute, the Starship flipped, presented its tail to the ground and reignited all three Raptor engines. However, the rocket came in too hot and exploded on impact. Nevertheless, the test was an almost complete success, deriving data that SpaceX will use for the next prototype, the SN9. As Musk tweeted, “Fuel header tank pressure was low during landing burn, causing touchdown velocity to be high & RUD, but we got all the data we needed! Congrats SpaceX team hell yeah!!”
An RUD, by the way, is a “Rapid unplanned disassembly,” i.e. an explosion.
NASA is observing the tests of the SpaceX Starship with keen interest. A version of the Starship is in the running for the Human Landing System, the 21st century moon lander that could carry members of the Artemis Cadre to the lunar surface. The full Starship/Superheavy stack could, with refueling in Earth orbit, take a hundred tons of people and cargo to the moon or Mars.
The selection of the Artemis Cadre and the first flight test of the Starship proves that progress is being made toward the day when human beings will return to the moon. Tangible events, more than the pronouncements of politicians and bureaucrats, argue that the Artemis program is real and should be continued. One cannot contend against success. But more such needs to happen before human beings walk on the moon again.
Mark Whittington, who writes frequently about space and politics, has published a political study of space exploration entitled Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon? as well as “The Moon, Mars and Beyond.” He blogs at Curmudgeons Corner. He is published in the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, The Hill, USA Today, the LA Times and the Washington Post, among other venues.