Artemis 1: Yup, Alice, We’re Going To The Moon

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Mike Collins, the late Apollo astronaut, famously said one of his great regrets was not saying something more epic when, as CAPCOM, he cleared Apollo 8 to reignite its Saturn IV-B to commence its historic voyage to the Moon on Dec. 21, 1968. In the dry parlance of NASA, it was “go for TLI”—translunar injection. He thought it should have been something like, “you’re go to slip the surly bonds and venture where no man has before.”

If the flight plan works out, someone at NASA gets a do-over on Monday if the scheduled Artemis 1 mission launches on time. No humans aboard, just three instrumented mannequins, but someone gets to say go for TLI, a phrase last used in human space flight in December 1972 when Apollo 17 put the last crew on the lunar surface.

Lunar Voyaging V2.0 is quite a bit different than the Apollo effort. But it hardly lacks in boldness when you consider that the core booster of the Space Launch System that comprises Artemis 1 has never flown, much less the entire configuration. When Apollo 8 launched, it was the beneficiary of George Mueller’s legendary all-up testing idea. From its earliest days, NASA had favored a plodding, incremental strategy of testing various subsystems, adding more along the way as any problems were discovered and sorted out.

Mueller, NASA’s Deputy Administrator for Human Spaceflight, realized the agency would never meet President John F. Kennedy’s end-of-decade deadline for a lunar landing unless testing was accelerated. He proposed just putting the rockets together and flying them with as many systems as were available. Even at that, NASA still flew sub-components of the Saturn system before launching the full stack. Apollo 4, an uncrewed test, used only two of three stages and the first manned Apollo earth-orbit flight, Apollo 7, launched on a Saturn 1B, not the Saturn V.

Nonetheless, NASA moved at a blistering pace. Just 60 days after Apollo 7 flew, Apollo 8 launched for the Moon. The mission had originally been intended as a high earth orbit test of the command and lunar module, but the LM wasn’t ready. Even before 7 flew, NASA reconfigured Apollo 8 as a lunar mission. It stunned the world that Christmas Eve in 1968.

Artemis and the SLS, by comparison, is moving at a glacial pace. The only major component of it that has flown somewhat configured is the Orion crew capsule—in 2014. Artemis 1 was originally slated for a 2016 launch, a date that slipped six years, something unthinkable during the Apollo years. But it’s a different world now. We’re still locked toe-to-toe with the Rooskies, but not in a space race. Now, it’s the Chinese, whose space intentions are, in my view, malign.

During the Apollo years, NASA’s budget was as much as 4.5 percent of the federal budget. Now it’s under a half percent.

Given that, it’s probably miraculous that any kind of booster stands on a pad bore sighted on the moon, much less one that will carry humans there on a lunar flyby on the next flight (planned) in 2024. In a sense, NASA is channeling its all-up history because it won’t fly any test flights in the interim.

In the heyday of light aircraft manufacturing, we had something called “parts-bin airplanes.” The airframers dreamed up incrementally new models by mixing and matching parts they were already making. Piper did this with the Cherokee line, Beech with the Musketeer, the Sundowner and the Sierra. NASA kind of did this with the SLS when the grand plan to get to Mars with the ambitious Constellation program was canceled, along with two planned new boosters, the Ares I and V. Altair, the follow-on to Apollo’s lunar module, was also flushed.

This is why the SLS booster looks like it does, a skinny tall thing compared to the Saturn V’s brawny three-stage stack. The SLS is basically a reshaped Space Shuttle with a giant compartmented fuel tank using the same cryogenic hydrogen and oxygen and the same Aerojet Rocketdyne RS-25 engines that served as the main shuttle engines. The SLS has four and initially, it will use engines already flown on the Shuttle. To get this rig off the ground—and in fact, to provide 75 percent of its initial thrust—the SLS uses the same segmented solid rocket boosters that flew the shuttle, but with one extra segment. NASA has enough of those for eight SLS flights, after which new, fiber-wound composite boosters developed by Northrop Grumman will be used. All of this hardware is expendable.

The SRB components are, shall we say, experienced, with one aft skirt dating to 1984 and numerous other parts with multiple shuttle flights. The RS-25 engines have all also flown multiple Shuttle missions. If this sounds a little like a homebuilt being assembled from salvage parts, well, maybe it is. But all that hardware was expensively designed to be reusable and it is flight proven, so why not? During the Apollo era, NASA was inventing new stuff on the fly, but on 10 times the budget.

And therein lies the downside of repurposing existing technology. You lose the developmental edge to invent new things. On the other hand, we have the private sector—mainly SpaceX—doing that at a smart pace so perhaps we’ve reached the ideal mix.

Although Apollo 8 and the eventual Apollo 11 landing were widely hailed as inspirational, the awe wasn’t universal. Some at the time questioned whether the expenditure and risk were worth the gain, but there was at least keen national interest. On the eve of the Artemis 1 mission, there’s a little of that. The mission is getting wide if painfully shallow press coverage, but there are far more outlets to treat it in detail than ever before. NASA will live stream the launch here and onboard and external cameras will provide imagery far more compelling than the grainy TV of the Apollo years. Thousands are expected along the Space Coast to view the launch in person. I wish I could be one of them for it’s going to be quite a spectacle.

These will be expensive launches, but when have they ever been anything else? Cost per launch will be north of $2 billion, compared to $450 million over the life of the Space Shuttle Program and $1.2 billion for Saturn V launches, adjusted for inflation. Some people will never see this as worth it, others will always think it is and even as a diehard skinflint, I share the always-worth-it sentiment. I mean, come on, we’re going back to the Moon after two decades of stooging around in earth orbit on the International Space Station. It’s time to start serious exploration again and if it has to be done at a snail’s pace because of budget and political considerations, that’s better than not doing it at all.

Long-term presence on the Moon—this time at the lunar poles—is a worthy scientific aspiration and will inform what comes next, a mission to Mars. Humankind is a curious, exploratory species. If we weren’t, we would still be perfecting painting on the walls of caves.

So yeah, Artemis 1, go slip the surly bonds. We’ll be watching. And cheering.   

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39 COMMENTS

  1. I join your “worth it” sentiment. Beyond the obvious, there are always subtle technological benefits for the general population, as well. I’ll be up early to watch it on TV. I still clearly remember the landing in 1969 … hard to believe that was 53 years ago!

  2. July 20 1969 marked my induction into a world of wonder. I was at a forgettable UC Davis student play then when someone dragged a TV onstage. It was worth it for me. On evening walks I gaze at the sky knowing I am part of the universe, made of atoms billions of years old.

  3. How can a taxpayer opt-out of this monstrous expenditure that comes at a time when our already staggering $31T national debt is increasing at over a $1T annually? What will the hard ROI to us be to go back and pick up a few rocks again, about all we got out of the first moon landings. CNBC: “NASA’s massive moon rocket will cost taxpayers billions more than projected, auditor warns Congress….SpaceX CEO Elon Musk recently estimated that Starship’s development cost would be 5% to 10% of the Apollo-era Saturn V rocket — which, at an inflation-adjusted $50 billion, puts Starship’s development cost at $2.5 billion to $5 billion.” The best steward of money is the person who earned it through his own labor. These billions confiscated from wealth creators for government space travel are all lost opportunity costs. What could have people done with their own money if left in their own pockets? These big rockets are essentially government – funded skyscrapers, described in Mark Thornton’s great book: “The Skyscraper Curse: And How Austrian Economists Predicted Every Major Economic Crisis of the Last Century”

    • Perhaps I have a different perspective, but this taxpayer would rather NOT opt-out of paying for another moon landing. We are (or most of us, anyway) a curious and exploratory species. Otherwise, we would still be in merry old England and/or inhabiting the east coast. I look at this endeavor as an investment in our future rather than as an expenditure. I look at the potential for new jobs and careers. I look at the invention of new technologies and the discovery of new science. I look at the advancement of knowledge. Most important, I look at the advancement of the human race.

      When electromagnetic waves were first discovered, I’m certain there were many who thought the basic research was a waste of time and money. After all, there were no radios, televisions, or cell phones. What good were invisible waves through space? If we had backed away and said “This is a waste of money,” where would we be now? Yes, the space program is expensive, but not nearly as expensive as failing to continue to push the boundaries of what we are capable of achieving.

    • “SpaceX CEO Elon Musk recently estimated that Starship’s development cost would be 5% to 10% of the Apollo-era Saturn V rocket”

      Elon Musk conveniently leaves out the fact that he’s benefiting from all the R&D NASA did to build Apollo. It’s easy to get an “A” when someone else has done the homework.

      Elon is a dwarf standing on the shoulders of the giant Apollo. SpaceX certainly did a lot of work, but they didn’t start from scratch.

      • It’s also easier to do something once you know it’s technically possible to do it. When Apollo (and its predecessors) were being first designed, it wasn’t even known if we *could* get to the moon, or even launch a person into orbit and return them alive.

      • Again cancelled due to fuel “leaks” at one or more of the main engines – which, by the way, are old shuttle main engines. Meanwhile, Musk is launching about one a week. Double-plus, TWO years between this launch and the next flight – a manned lunar orbital (but not landing, b/c “NASA” hasn’t approved a lunar lander). Lunar landing? Anybody’s guess.

      • Why would you start from scratch? Using available technology and practices that are available would seem to be a given. Nobody else has ever been able to return a primary stage and land it safely on a floating platform out in the ocean, ready to be inspected, cleaned up, refused and used for many more flights. Now that’s a hell of an accomplishment in itself!

    • Kent M, The $XXX Billions of dollars spent in space programs mostly goes to payroll. Americas’ best and brightest get paid to engineer and draw the plans for each and every little piece and part. Machinist and manufacturers produce each part. Miners dig the materials. People produce the fuels. Pipelines and drivers deliver all these essentials to their destinations. So many other steps and productive people are getting a pay check from our ventures into space.

      “What could have people done with their own money if left in their own pockets?”
      We need to give them the money first. Many brilliant Americans are acquiring this tax money. I agree with Space spending over international conflict spending.

      • Klaus is correct. There have always been naysayers who seem to believe every NASA rocket contains a payload of cash jettisoned into space after launch. The fact is that the money is spent on earth in jobs and materials that ultimately support numerous state and local economies.

    • I get the sentiment. But, there are A LOT of other lines in the Federal budget that I would much rather see gone before this one. Some of them I would gladly trim at risk of personal job security. Whatever our motivations were for starting it, US Human Space Flight brought a lot of wonder to my childhood and is no small part of the reason that I’m an engineer, a pilot, and doing the particular job that I’m doing these days. My personal opinion is that we lost something as a country, maybe even as a species, when we let real exploration, and the learning that comes with it, take a back seat to ceaseless bickering over partisan junk and the endless “social” programs of voter-pandering wealth reallocation.

      So, yeah, count me in with Paul. Light those candles and let ‘em fly.

    • Even $20 billion in cost overruns are a drop in the bucket of government spending. The federal debt is literally 1,000 times larger than SLS. Two thirds of the federal budget goes to social security and Medicare. NASA gets less than half a percent.
      I agree that SLS is too expensive and obsolete, but it’s just not worth worrying about.

    • NASA will be concentrating on the moon’s polar regions because they are pretty sure there is frozen water there. Water is essential for a permanent base. The equatorial area of the far side has been well observed from satellites, so it has nothing really different from the front side, which we have already visited.

  4. From its very beginning, the space program has been a tug of war between those that see it as man’s destiny to explore and those that see better uses for taxpayer money spent anywhere else. The main reason for the Apollo program’s success was that there was a national concensus that we needed to face down the Soviet Union for superiority in space. JFK’s commitment to reach the moon by 1970 caught NASA by surprise, but he had the support of the majority of Americans who were willing to pay the price. The Soviet Union no longer exists, and we no longer fear Russian dominance, so that motivation has gone away. But, as Paul points out, we should be concerned with the Chinese, who are clearly pursing dominance in space as a national priority. Whether it’s for peaceful purposes or not is anybody’s guess, but I would prefer to not find out when it’s too late.

    As for the cost, NASA is run by the government, which means it has to use subcontractors scattered across the congressional districts of influential politicians – arguably the worst way to fund anything. SpaceX has the advantage of an efficient supply chain and the ability to make changes on the fly by blowing up their mistakes to learn what works best. With their budget constraints, NASA has to be very careful to not make any mistakes because they can’t afford to blow up a single SLS. As for me, count me in on the “Go for TLI” side.

  5. I can see little advantage of a moon base, that can’t be more easily and (much cheaply) achieved with orbiting space stations. The moon base requires passing through its gravitational potential energy well- – twice for each payload, plus with risk of a impact on landing. The idea of mining is ridiculously infeasible. Any substance mined there would be hugely more expensive, after space transport both ways, than mining on Earth. Mining requires heavy machinery. Transporting bulldozers or equivalent machines to the moon is infeasible being way too heavy. Building permanent life supporting facilities has huge problems. Where does the food and air come from? Consider the fragility of such a base, where any breach of the air seal is quickly fatal.

    The robustness of Earth based equipment and facilities are a near an impossibility to reproduce on the moon. The scale of what is required is not widely understood. The construction in the hard vacuum of space (I.e., the moons surface) and the enormous energy expenditures of overcoming gravity potential wells, constant life support, pose difficulties not easily appreciated.

    Financing this, when we are in massive debt seems like a poor choice. It will probably not happen ( the whole moon base).

    Almost any scientific study can be done by orbital and robotic instruments. The Webb telescope is a good example. I feel like I have only scratched the surface of the massive infeasibility of such a manned moon base, even worse on Mars. But in the early stages, media hype keeps interest alive for funding. Until the realities sink in. Then it will be cancelled.

    • “ Almost any scientific study can be done by orbital and robotic instruments.”

      There are hundreds of hours of video and thousands of books and pictures documenting Yellowstone National park. There is no information in the park that the average visitor can’t glean from current documentation.

      Yet, the park hosted 4,860,537 recreation visits in 2021. A federal report shows visitors to Yellowstone National Park spent nearly $513 million in neighboring communities in 2016.

      Why is it, that these visitors to Yellowstone spend the time, effort and millions of dollars to visit the park when they can get the same information from a free PBS special posted on YouTube?

      I know many a pilot that will fire up the 172 to bore holes in the sky, burning a few gallons of 100LL to visit an on field restaurant to grab a hamburger.

      Why is it, that these pilots spend he time, effort and dollars to fire up the 172 when they could have had the same burger or better, cheaper, delivered to their door without getting up from the barcalounger?

    • As Kennedy said, and is still relevant today, we go because it is hard. It’s the drive for knowledge, and as good as remote devices like Webb and Curiosity, etc are, nothing is the same as actually physically being there.

      Also, back in the 50s when manned spaceflight was beginning, the same infeasibilities you speak of were said about manned spaceflight in general. Who knows what will be feasible in 70 years from now.

    • John D, you may want to research ‘Helium-3’. A promising fusion candidate. Scientist still have to figure out how to build Helium-3 Fusion plants but, can’t advance to the next level if we don’t move forward.

    • John D., the orbiting station you prefer would still have most of the same problems as a moon base, except for the “gravity well” issue. The station would still be operating in a vacuum, which exposes it to the same leak issues as on the surface. All supplies, including oxygen, food and water would have to be ferried up from earth. In space, the astronauts are exposed to solar radiation that could be mitigated by proper shelters on the surface. One reason for the base being located at the poles is the presence of water that could be used to possibly grow crops in proper conditions (eg. hydroponics) as well as making breathable air and hydrogen fuel for return rocket trips. Mining is not the main purpose of such a mission. Besides, with 1/6 of earth gravity, industrial machines would not need to be as massive as on earth. The main purpose of a moon base is to figure out how people will live and be self-sufficient for extended periods in a hostile environment, which is essential for any future deep-space missions to other planets. As someone else said, looking at pictures is fine, but sooner or later, people will want to go see for themselves. It’s in our DNA.

  6. Repeating what I said in my reply to the poll, “Other”: is it three, or four ? generations since we have BT,DT. We simply need to polish the concept that we can still do a 180 and get back home with different equipment.