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.

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