Aug 23, 2022 - Science

NASA's last stand

Illustration of a NASA flag on the moon

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

NASA's Artemis program to return people to the surface of the Moon for the first time since the 1970s is a test of whether the space agency's old way of exploration will stand up in the modern space age.

Why it matters: If next week's scheduled launch of the new moon rocket — the Space Launch System — succeeds, it could prove that NASA is still on the cutting edge of the technology needed for human space exploration, even as companies like SpaceX nip at its heels.

  • But the rocket is billions of dollars over budget and years behind schedule, and even a successful first launch won't change that.
  • "NASA has never been challenged as the best way for the United States to do hard things in space until now," John Logsdon, the founder of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, tells Axios.

Catch up quick: The SLS is expected to lift off on Aug. 29, sending an uncrewed Orion capsule on a journey around the Moon and back to Earth.

  • The launch will be a test of the integrated systems before NASA puts people onboard and eventually uses the rocket and capsule to deliver people to the lunar surface in 2025.
  • If this launch fails, experts say it will imperil NASA's entire Artemis program because a failing, over-budget program is far harder to garner political support for.
  • "This has to work," Casey Dreier of the Planetary Society tells Axios.

The big picture: The SLS was first ordered by Congress in 2010 and built in much the same way as the Apollo program's Saturn V — using contracts with legacy aerospace companies that trade cost savings for reliability.

  • But as this launch is happening, SpaceX is working to get its Starship vehicle ready to fly to orbit at some point this year, challenging more traditional aerospace companies.
  • That rocket system is designed to bring large payloads — including people — to deep space destinations like the Moon, Mars and beyond.
  • The Elon Musk-founded company has, in many ways, upended the traditional way that big exploration programs are done by offering major cost savings, undercutting legacy aerospace companies.

The intrigue: NASA itself is already turning toward public and private, fixed-price partnerships that allow the space agency to buy services from private industry and save money in the process.

  • A key component of the Artemis program relies on this kind of partnership with SpaceX to develop a lunar lander.
  • Proponents of these public/private partnerships say they save the government money and hew more closely to deadlines without the extreme cost overruns seen during the development of systems like SLS.

Yes, but: Other experts say that a program of national importance like the SLS doesn't necessarily need to be — or should be — the most cost-effective. It just needs to work well.

  • "If something is a national priority, then it's not meant to be efficient," Dreier says. "We're not always trying to squeeze the best dollar out of it. We want reliability over decades."
  • Right now, SpaceX is an outlier in the industry in how close it is to getting a home-grown, heavy-lift rocket to orbit, so arguing that NASA should forego the SLS in favor of Starship could be premature, Dreier says.
  • Other companies like Blue Origin are also working to build large rockets, but they're years behind SpaceX.

The public/private partnership model also has its own risks.

  • Big exploration programs need political support, and if the leaders of these companies — like Musk — align themselves with one political party over another, as the SpaceX CEO has done with the Republican Party, it could turn people off to the space program at large.
  • "If they see NASA enriching a strongly Republican-associated" individual, "that can alienate a big swath of public from this whole endeavor, more than spending an extra couple billion dollars on a rocket built in Alabama," Dreier said.
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