NASA has delayed the launch of its Artemis 1 moon mission twice over the past two weeks—keeping its 322-foot Space Launch System rocket and Orion capsule grounded in Cape Canaveral, Florida, where crowds of eager onlookers have been hoping to see the making of history. The first launch attempt, on August 29, was called off after a faulty sensor indicated a problem with one of the rocket’s engines. The second, this past Saturday, was jettisoned due to a fuel leak. Now it’ll be September 19, at the earliest, before the U.S. space agency tries again with the $4.1 billion flight of an unmanned rocket to orbit the moon. Artemis 1 is the first of three planned missions for the Artemis program in the coming years; the second will bring astronauts into lunar orbit; and the third will, as NASA says, “put footprints on the moon dust for the first time since 1972.” What’s driving all this?
Joe Pappalardo is a U.S.-based journalist and the author of Spaceport Earth: The Reinvention of Spaceflight. The context for the Artemis program, as Pappalardo sees it, is that NASA now understands the moon as a key resource in its broader ambitions over the next decades. These include establishing a space station in the moon’s orbit, spurring the growth of a commercial space industry that NASA understands as essential to its long-term success, and ultimately extracting ice from lunar caters as a resource for space travel—and laying the foundation for the human exploration of Mars. Meanwhile, the Artemis program allows the U.S. to lead a coalition of countries around the world in an ambitious collective effort. At a moment in history when China and Russia are mobilizing on their own objectives in space, as they continue to on some of their more troubling objectives here on Earth, Pappalardo sees the competition between democracies and autocracies extending beyond our world as it intensifies within it.
Graham Vyse: How unusual are the launch delays we’ve seen for Artemis 1?
Joe Pappalardo: These kinds of engineering-driven delays—certainly at this stage of a rocket program—aren’t uncommon. So on the one hand, I think of them as part of the process, which isn’t always going to be smooth and easy. On the other hand, I think about all the money being spent—and how much slower this process has been compared with commercial space programs—and I wonder about the benefit of that. NASA is using legacy hardware from the era of the Space Shuttle, so the expectation was that they knew what they were doing, and there shouldn’t be too many surprises, but the testing went badly from the start and now they look a little embarrassed.
I’m beginning to feel a little worried about lots of delays leading to cost overruns and that SpaceX’s lander for the upcoming Artemis 3 mission to the lunar surface might be ready before the Space Launch System and Orion are ready. This Artemis 1 launch is ultimately going to happen, but there’s a risk that years of expensive delays could limit the aspirations of the Artemis program as a whole.
Vyse: As you see a lot of observers noting, the program is already years behind schedule and billions of dollars over budget. Why is that?
Pappalardo: Each launch for the program costs over $4 billion. Cost overruns are from delays caused by engineering problems—the need for extra tests, for instance. We’re talking about a big, complicated program, with lots of subcontractors from just about every congressional district in America. Creating jobs is a point of pride, but when you have so many different parts of a program created by so many different people, one thing going wrong can mean delays for the whole effort.
It may be unfair to compare SpaceX and NASA, but SpaceX is built to be fast-but-risky whereas NASA is built to be slow-but-reliable. We’re now seeing that the fast-but-risky approach is actually leading to not only faster but more reliable results. Artemis is this giant U.S. government program that leaks money—as the Apollo program was—and that seems antiquated, but lots of members of Congress could get behind its traditional approach, which made use of languishing NASA facilities and had a supply chain stretching into lots of different communities. There are real benefits to NASA doing work across these communities, of course, but this approach can get in the way of doing things quickly, being able to change direction when engineers learn something new, or being free to adopt new technology and machinery. There’s less flexibility. And the Space Launch System isn’t reusable, either, meaning it’s a costly rocket that can only be used once. It would be foolish to stop this program now, but it would be grossly irresponsible to replicate it in the future.
There’s been a paradigm shift in which NASA and the commercial space industry are now working together in ways that are still mind-boggling to people like me who’ve been following them for a long time.
Vyse: So, what will happen on this Artemis 1 mission?
Pappalardo: Artemis 1 is a shakedown cruise—a performance test—for the rocket and capsule system. It’ll test the navigation systems and the spacecraft’s engines to get into lunar orbit. Then the capsule will fly unmanned around the moon in a very wide and long arc—even wider and longer than Apollo 13’s in 1970. It’ll loop around, come back to Earth, and land somewhere in the Pacific Ocean. This capsule—the Orion capsule, built by Boeing—is what the crew will ride in to get to the moon on future missions.
Getting astronauts back on the moon will be a three-step process: First, the Artemis 1 launch has to be successful, with the vehicle making it to the moon and performing as expected. A second launch will involve astronauts flying around the moon. A third will involve astronauts in the Orion capsule going to lunar orbit, docking with a SpaceX starship and taking that down to the moon before flying back up, transferring back to the Orion capsule and ultimately returning to Earth. Artemis 1 is the first launch of hardware for all of this.
Vyse: Why does NASA want to go back to the moon in the first place?
Pappalardo: I once had an argument with Buzz Aldrin about this, believe it or not. He was asking why we shouldn’t go somewhere in space we haven’t been, given that we’ve been to the moon. I said, “Well, you’ve been there, but the rest of us haven’t—and there’s a lot left to be done there.”
NASA talks about going back to the moon as a means of preparing to land on Mars—though if that’s what they really care about, I wonder why they don’t focus on it more directly, given that the moon and Mars are radically different. When you speak to lower-level people at NASA who do a lot of serious thinking, you realize the moon is going to end up being a kind of resource outpost for trips into space. Ice trapped in its poles will be convertible into fuel for ships to travel greater distances. NASA ultimately wants to have a permanent space station, the Lunar Gateway, orbiting the moon as a place where you can get supplies or use an excellent communications system. Think of it as being like a hotel and telegraph office in the Wild West—and maybe, in the future, a fueling station.
Artemis is probably going to be the last NASA program of its kind. They’re not going to be using rockets like the Space Launch System in the future. It’s a legacy system—the last gasp of the 1960s design ethos. There’s been a paradigm shift in which NASA and the commercial space industry are now working together in ways that are still mind-boggling to people like me who’ve been following them for a long time.
The Artemis program is the centerpiece of NASA’s vision for space exploration. It represents everything NASA wants to be—a global leader in spaceflight that other nations can rally around, which is opening up space for commerce and further scientific discovery.
Vyse: You mention ice, trapped in the poles of the moon, that can be used for fuel. How does that work?
Pappalardo: Water is a necessity for NASA to have a sustainable human presence on the moon. The moon has some shadowy craters that never see any sunlight, and water collected in those craters has turned to ice. The ice could be turned back into water or into oxygen—or into rocket fuel. It’s the most precious commodity in space. If you put a base near these craters, you’d have a supply of ice and you could still set up solar panels to catch sunlight. It’s all about utilizing resources from the moon to travel and explore further—to stay longer on the moon and eventually use it as a way station and maybe even a refueling station—on the way to Mars. Another goal of Artemis is to set up the solar system for commercial development, and ice mining on the moon will likely end up being of commercial interest.
Vyse: How sustainable a commercial interest could that be?
Pappalardo: It’s ultimately a finite resource, but there’d be a relatively small number of customers for it. According to observations from India’s Chandrayaan-1 spacecraft and NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, there are more than 600 billion kilograms of ice in the lunar poles—that’s enough to fill 240,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools—and that ice could be mined robotically.
Vyse: We spoke last year about how NASA is working increasingly with the commercial space industry. In what ways is it shaping the Artemis program specifically?
Pappalardo: There wouldn’t be an Artemis program without the commercial industry. There are commercial missions with robotic landers that will lay the groundwork for astronauts to return to the moon, and there will be a SpaceX Starship taking those astronauts to the lunar surface on NASA’s behalf. That’s an enormous role. Follow-on missions will involve other companies like Blue Origin. It’d be a lot easier to imagine private companies landing on the moon without NASA than to imagine NASA landing on the moon without private companies.
NASA has said it doesn’t want to build vehicles. It wants to buy rides on other people’s vehicles—and then do things with those vehicles. If you’re an American who wants to go to Chicago, you wouldn’t build an airplane yourself to get there. You’d buy a ticket on an airplane—and if airplanes didn’t exist, you’d fund the creation of an airplane to take you to Chicago. This approach NASA is now taking is cheaper and more reliable—and spurs commercial activity in space. It’s also a success for the U.S. government that’s been backed by George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Donald Trump, and Joe Biden. I don’t know of a policy that’s survived through that many presidents.
Given that China and Russia are spacefaring nations, you don’t have to be Henry Kissinger to see there are now autocracies exploring space and democracies exploring space. It’s like science fiction from the 1950s in a lot of ways, but it’s the situation we find ourselves in.
Vyse: How does the Artemis program serve NASA’s broader goals as an organization?
Pappalardo: The Artemis program is the centerpiece of NASA’s vision for space exploration. It represents everything NASA wants to be—a global leader in spaceflight that other nations can rally around, which is opening up space for commerce and further scientific discovery.
Vyse: You shared with me last year the idea that it’s also part of a plan to “keep the western world together.”
Pappalardo: You know, a Ukrainian journalist who’s been covering the war with Russia very closely, Illia Ponomarenko of The Kyiv Independent, tweeted, “Someone is completing a new launch vehicle to get humans back to the Moon in 2024. Someone is razing cities to the ground only to claim lifeless ruins as their territory and re-install Lenin monuments. And the latter are angry about the fact we want to be with the moonwalkers.”
What a perspective. Given that China and Russia are spacefaring nations, you don’t have to be Henry Kissinger to see there are now autocracies exploring space and democracies exploring space. It’s like science fiction from the 1950s in a lot of ways, but it’s the situation we find ourselves in.
[The Artemis Accords—between the U.S. and other countries participating in the Artemis program—were signed by Australia, Bahrain, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, France, Israel, Italy, Japan, Luxembourg, Mexico, New Zealand, Poland, Romania, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, South Korea, Ukraine, the United Arab Emirates, and the United Kingdom.]
Vyse: I notice that Bill Nelson, the NASA administrator, now talks openly about the U.S. being in a “space race” with China.
Pappalardo: That “space race” rhetoric is new for NASA. There used to be some hope that China and Russia would cooperate with the U.S. and we’d keep space as a place where all of humanity could excel. The reality is that the militarization of space began after the Gulf War, but Nelson is the first NASA administrator to take this strident tone. It’s a remarkable change.
He’s responding to events. The Chinese government has shown no interest in cooperation, and it’s succeeding with its space program. It’s succeeding with civilian and scientific missions as well as military missions. The environment in space is changing; it’s becoming a contested environment. The kind of rhetoric you’re hearing from Nelson is also a way to whip up bipartisan support in the U.S. and appear tough on China and Russia, as those countries are doing deplorable things on the world stage.
And there are other global politics at play. Countries in the developing world have to decide who they want to go to space with—China or the U.S. It’s hard to get excited about Russia’s cooperation in space when Moscow is massacring Ukrainians. It’s hard to get excited about China’s achievements in space when Beijing is killing Uyghurs in Xinjiang and repressing people across its regime. You can’t divorce what’s happening in space from what’s happening on Earth.