NASA is spending $4B to shoot mannequins around the moon on Artemis

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Why NASA is spending $4 billion to shoot three mannequins around the moon on the Artemis rocket

Update: NASA has scrubbed its latest launch attempt for the SLS rocket due a leak of hydrogen fuel, albeit from a different location than the leak that caused the agency to cancel its previous launch attempt.


The moon will have to wait for a visit from Commander Moonikin Campos and his colleagues, Helga and Zohar. NASA on Monday had to call off its first test launch of its jumbo space rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS), planned as a 42-day, $4.1 billion mission to circle the moon and return the three “manikins” to Earth.

The scrub, blamed on a leaking liquid hydrogen line meant to chill one of the rocket’s engines, is only the latest delay of a space launcher years late, billions over budget and already obsolete. The next launch attempt is scheduled for Friday.

“It’s a rocket to somewhere. Just somewhere no one knows quite sure where,” said NASA Watch Editor Keith Cowing. “Nothing is wrong with the rocket, per se, it’s just that the design was commanded by members of Congress, well-known for being rocket scientists.”

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The program has its origins in 2010, when a bipartisan group of space-state senators from Alabama, Texas, Florida and Maryland (including the current NASA administrator, former astronaut Bill Nelson) forced on NASA and the Obama administration looking down the barrel of layoffs with the last flight of the space shuttle. The Statue of Liberty-sized Space Launch System will be the world’s most powerful rocket once launched, able to put 59,000 pounds of cargo into orbit beyond the moon. The rocket is a linchpin of current U.S. plans to build a permanent moon base, a national goal embraced by both the Biden and Trump administrations — with little notice or attention from the nation — and eventually go to Mars.

“The world today is very different from the Apollo era when the last U.S. heavy lift vehicle flew, but the capabilities to be demonstrated are crucial to U.S. leadership in space,” said George Washington University’s Scott Pace, former deputy assistant to the president and executive secretary of the National Space Council during the Trump administration. He noted that space exploration remains one of the few areas of bipartisan agreement in Congress.

Image of manikin in orange space suit strapped into testing seat

Lofty goals — and even loftier budgets

NASA earlier this month announced just over a dozen possible sites for this moon base, clustered around the lunar south pole, which hopefully hides frozen comet water in its shaded craters for future moon people to enjoy. The agency estimates the Artemis moon base plan — named for the sister of Apollo, in a nod to plans to land female astronauts on the moon — will cost $93 billion overall, including rockets, capsules and landers from 2012 to 2025.

That led to NASA’s inspector general in March scolding Congress for its profligacy in forcing cost overrun and delay-guaranteeing contracts for the moon program on the space agency, which drove continual budget crises at the agency and ate up real science programs there. The Artemis plan includes 10 launches of the SLS, which NASA calls its “Mega Moon Rocket” and says will cost merely $2 billion a pop, in a dispute with its inspector general. Critics for the last decade have called it the “Senate Launch System.”

“They literally ordered NASA to build it out of reusable space shuttle engines with the goal of throwing them away,” Cowing added. “Only NASA would spend billions to make incredible, reusable rocket engines and then billions more to put them on a rocket that will use them once.” Even a mobile launch tower for the rocket was over budget, with its cost more than doubling to $1 billion, and delayed by more than two years, according to a scathing NASA inspector general’s report released in June.

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Try, try again

Delayed rocket launches, especially first, test launches, are normal for new rockets, but Monday’s delay is an emblematic one for the SLS. The engine-chilling process relies on liquid hydrogen at some -423 degrees Fahrenheit bled through the engines prior to launch to cool them. On Monday, a liquid hydrogen bleed line started leaking, the exact same problem that prematurely ended a final test fueling of the rocket in June. NASA went ahead with the scrubbed launch attempt despite that leak problem. Despite an estimated $23 billion in development costs, the test to send three manikins on a 42-day trip around the moon is truly a test flight, practice for a second such lunar flyby by four real astronauts hoped to launch in 2024.

The real future of NASA’s lunar plans is likely 985 miles away from the first Kennedy Space Center launch of the SLS, whenever it happens, in Chica Boca, Texas, where Elon Musk’s SpaceX is building its own bigger, stronger, jumbo rocket, called Starship, which is reusable. Reusable rockets are the future of spaceflight, with not just SpaceX, but Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origins, Russia, China and the European Space Agency planning them, along with other private companies. NASA has already picked Starship to land the next two astronauts on the moon after they have been taken into orbit there by SLS. SpaceX hopes to have an empty test landing of Starship on the moon by 2024. (Cost estimates for Starship range from $2 million to $10 million a flight, orders of magnitude less than SLS.)

All these reusable rockets are the heirs to a road not taken by NASA in the 1990s, the Delta Clipper rocket, whose $60 million prototype first demonstrated successful upright takeoff and landing of rockets in 1995. NASA killed the program after a strut failed on the prototype’s third landing. SpaceX now instead makes highlight films of its bloopers (this one’s a doozy) when something goes wrong, understanding that rapid cycles of failure and experiment are the keys to perfecting a rocket.

SLS will likely reach space for the first time ahead of Starship, which aims for a first one in the next six months. But what is important is when each rocket has a second launch, noted space writer Eric Berger of Ars Technica, with a bigger, better and much, much cheaper Starship likely lapping SLS quickly thanks to its reusability. SLS was “the political price the agency had to pay to bring Congress on board with a real deep space exploration program,” he wrote last week.

Cutting it close

The retirement of Republican Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama — the former chair and ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, where the checks are cut for NASA — will remove a pillar of the jobs program support for SLS. In retrospect, the rocket might be just an expensive bridge to letting companies launch astronauts to the moon on reusable rockets.

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That’s unless something really goes wrong with SLS on this first launch attempt, said Cowing. “They are really whistling past the graveyard on this one to have only one test launch before putting people on a flight around the moon on the second launch,” he said. “They don’t have any wiggle room for not having everything go right on this launch.”

This article has been updated. Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.

  • Dan Vergano
    Dan Vergano

    Science Reporter

    Dan Vergano is a science reporter for Grid.

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