It’s been extremely difficult to get to this point with Artemis, and it’s kind of a measure of the frustration generated by a program thrown around by both constantly changing administrations and a congress that NASA has long treated as a resource. to exchange votes. The effort to create a space shuttle sequel began in 2005 with the Constellation program. That program is said to have created a variety of rockets named “Ares” — from the Ares I to the Ares V — designed to give NASA some flexibility in launching manned missions. The Ares designs were intended to make heavy re-use of existing shuttle components, allowing for rapid progress. For example, the Ares I was built with a first stage that was essentially one of the shuttle’s solid rocket boosters.
When the Obama administration came in, a preliminary report revealed problems with some Ares designs, including a potentially unacceptable level of vibration from that solid rocket booster. The Bureau of Science and Technology Policy called for a complete overhaul of the entire system in 2009, and the resulting Augustine Commission was tasked with not only conducting a technical review, but also aligning NASA’s plans with a set of long-term goals. That committee’s conclusion: Constellation couldn’t move forward without a major boost in funding, and even then some systems would need major overhauls.
That led to the creation of the Space Launch System program in 2011, the same year as the last shuttle flight. Even then, expectations set a first test of the system no earlier than 2016, which is why President Barack Obama pushed for the Commercial Crew Program, understanding that America needed options if it didn’t depend on Russia in the long run to get people in. to bring the space. It turned out that the first manned Commercial Crew flight, SpaceX’s second Crew Dragon flight, didn’t come until 2020. SLS has still not left the path.
In the past year, however, Crew Dragon has taken NASA astronauts to the International Space Station three times (with a fourth trip planned this month) and four “space tourists” on a multi-day orbital flight. While Boeing’s Starliner has failed to make its planned appearance in the lineup and is unlikely to fly until late 2022, the movement of SLS and the Orion crew pod toward the pad means that NASA is finally getting close to the human flight capability it hoped to have five years ago.
In the coming years, both Crew Dragon and Starliner should be available for low-Earth orbit work. That means taking people to the International Space Station (ISS), completing orbital missions, or reaching other scientific or commercial stations. NASA is also reportedly considering expanding the Commercial Crew program to account for some of the other contenders who didn’t make the final cut when the program was reduced to SpaceX and Boeing.
At the same time, Artemis (the combination of SLS and Orion) should start working to take people past Earth’s orbit.
Currently, NASA’s plans for the Artemis program include an Artemis II flight that would repeat the Artemis I flight, but with a crew on board. An interesting aspect of these missions is that, by design, they will last much longer than any Apollo flight. NASA is looking at flight profiles that take between four and six weeks to complete the Earth-to-Moon, Moon-to-Earth mission. That means all astronauts on board will be out of low Earth orbit for much longer than during previous missions. Even without landing, Artemis II will be a good testing ground for long-term protection for astronauts on missions to the low-radiation environment beyond Earth’s orbit.
After that, NASA wants to start landing, but there’s a whole bunch of systems that need to come online first. That’s because the current version of SLS wasn’t designed to carry the kind of “full stack” the Saturn V carried. Instead, NASA plans to create a space station that will orbit the moon instead of the Earth (called Lunar Gateway or Gateway Station), and a landing system that will take people from Gateway Station to the moon and back. (the Human Landing System, or HLS).
Recently, SpaceX was awarded a contract to create the HLS based on a version of the Starship system they tested in Texas. However, that’s the contract that Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin systems attacked, and progress on HLS is currently embroiled in a lawsuit. In addition, the first draft of the 2022 funding legislation includes language that would force NASA to select a second landing system, although it does not include the resources NASA says it needs to make that possible. (The current Senate draft appears to include $100 million in additional funding for HLS, which is about a quarter of what NASA says would be needed to create a second system.)
When it comes to Gateway, the first components are scheduled to be placed in 2024 to support the Artemis III mission — the mission that should include the first human landing on the moon since 1972. That mission relies on HLS, of course, so if progress on Artemis I and Artemis II continues, that landing system could easily become the main delay… unless the spacesuits are the delay, as an August NASA report casts doubt on the availability of the new generation of moon suits for a landing in 2024.
Not that anyone really expects 2024 to happen. President Joe Biden has described the date as “a stretch,” and while it’s still officially NASA’s target for Artemis III, everything —everything— should go near perfect from now until then to place a 2024 boat print at the designated landing site near the moon’s south pole.
There is also a joker in this whole program in the form of the same system designed to create the HLS: SpaceX’s Starship. SpaceX currently has a prototype Starship and Superheavy booster on test benches in Boca Chica, Texas. In the past week they completed the static fire test of the prototype (known as Starship 20) and the booster (Booster 4) is expected to undergo similar tests soon. All this leads to a proposed flight around the end of the year in which SpaceX would launch this early version of Starship in a purposefully short flight, landing both the booster and Starship in the ocean. If that test goes well, Elon Musk has hinted that only Starship could be able to reach the moon before 2024.
There’s a catch in that idea, of course, and it’s a big one. SpaceX has made tremendous strides with their system, and their open-air development and testing program has been extremely exciting for anyone interested in space technology. If Starship/Superheavy achieves orbit in the coming months, it will be the start of what promises to be a true revolution in space travel – one that will increase the cost of getting cargo into orbit by more than one order. could decrease in size. However, the difference between that and a human-rated ship that NASA or anyone else would be comfortable putting a crew on board is big. No one will forget the spectacle of early SpaceX testing, where Starship landing attempts ended in a fiery explosion. So far, SpaceX has achieved one successful spaceship landing after a high-altitude test flight. Much more will be needed before regular crewed missions can begin. Like… a lot.
Right now — this month, this week, this minute — SLS not only looks good, but it seems like the only reasonable ride for NASA’s plans to take humans out of low-Earth orbit. Unless something pops up in the coming weeks (which seems, after the success of the second hot-fire test, much less likely), the launch of Artemis I in early 2022 seems on track. If that goes well, Artemis II could follow as early as 2023.
During Friday’s conference, Daily Kos had the opportunity to ask NASA Deputy Associate Administrator Tom Whitmeyer and Artemis I Mission Manager Mike Sarafin about reports that NASA had considered speeding up the schedule by placing astronauts on Artemis I. While Sarafin confirmed that this scenario had been explored during the early stages of planning, he stated that they had failed to meet NASA’s safety benchmarks. Whitmeyer insisted it had been a long time since such an idea had been considered.
That turned out to be a good decision. Right now, it’s not the rift from Artemis I to Artemis II that seems to be the obstacle to getting humans back to the moon. When it comes to Artemis III, it’s everything other than Orion and SLS that’s what it’s all about.