The first flight of NASA’s “mega moon rocket,” launched early on Wednesday morning on a monthlong test flight, sets the U.S. on an uncertain course to return astronauts to the moon.
The Artemis I mission’s Space Launch System (SLS) rocket blasted off at 1:47 a.m. EST from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The launch carried an uncrewed Orion space capsule into orbit, where a secondary booster fired to set it on a long, looping trajectory that will carry it some 40,000 miles around and beyond the moon. NASA’s inspector general estimated the total cost of the launch, years delayed and over budget, at $4.1 billion.
The successful Artemis I launch sets the space agency’s grand yet loosely conceived moon base and Mars plans on more technically solid ground. But it still leaves unanswered the questions about the exorbitant costs — and Sisyphean challenge — of interplanetary exploration, a dream chased since the dawn of the Space Age.
“This uncrewed flight test will push Orion to the limits in the rigors of deep space, helping us prepare for human exploration on the Moon and, ultimately, Mars,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson, in a statement on the launch. The flight will ensure four astronauts’ safety for the identical Artemis II flight scheduled for two years from now, most notably by testing a 25,000 mile-per-hour, 2,800-degree reentry of the Orion capsule on Dec. 11.
Under development since 2010, the first launch of the massive SLS rocket — for now the world’s most powerful — begins a series of launches and programs that aims to “land the first woman and first person of color on the Moon,” according to NASA, followed by sending astronauts to Mars. With launch dates uncertain, and hardware still in development, those plans include an orbiting lunar “Gateway” habitat in this decade, a moon base in the next and a contract that would mean 14 SLS launches through 2036.
Those plans look more firm today than they did a week ago, with the Artemis I launch repeatedly delayed by hydrogen fuel leaks, ones that even held up Wednesday’s successful launch, where a NASA “red team” had to be dispatched an hour before liftoff to tighten bolts on a leaking fuel assembly.
“A successful launch of the SLS was a critical step for this program,” said Casey Dreier, director of space policy at the Planetary Society. “Any rocket program must eventually demonstrate it can launch into space, after all, no matter how much political support it has.”
Headwinds for the Artemis program include its cost, an estimated $93 billion through 2025 — the kind of numbers that have sank moon and Mars proposals going back to the Reagan administration. And SLS faces bigger, cheaper, rivals under development, notably SpaceX’s Starship, which NASA has twice selected as the rocket to deliver and return astronauts from the lunar landings. Starship, which will generate 17 million pounds of thrust at launch, roughly double that of SLS, should see its first launch by next year, according to Elon Musk, SpaceX’s founder and CEO. The company claims the launch cost of its rocket is orders of magnitude less than NASA’s, in the range of $10 million within three years of operation.
“NASA seems like it is on better footing with the successful launch of SLS. But the hook is that we can’t afford to do it at $4 billion a shot,” said political scientist Roger Handberg of the University of Central Florida. “In the long term, that isn’t viable. We may use it to get the first woman on the moon. They’ll walk on the lunar surface, but the SLS looks like a dead end beyond then unless they significantly reduce the cost.”
Faced with similar costs of a big rocket program, the Nixon administration shut down the successful and capable Saturn V rocket lunar landing program in the early 1970s, noted Handberg. That was the end of America’s lunar ambitions until now.
A leaked NASA plan first reported this summer by Ars Technica for Artemis lunar landings, which the Trump administration originally wanted to happen by 2024, suggested that the bulk of Artemis launches through 2034 would be aimed at building the Gateway orbiting module intended to circle the moon, rather than lunar landings or constructing a moon base. A first Artemis III mission returning astronauts to the moon’s surface would happen in 2025 under that plan. Some observers see 2028 as more realistic, a delay that might give SpaceX’s Starship and other developers more time to build the space hardware meant for moon landings. A lunar surface habitat comes only in the last year of the leaked plan, in 2034.
“Just in all the delays with getting Artemis I off the ground shows some of the inherent challenges in using SLS for this mission, including the cost,” said space policy expert Brian Weeden of the Secure World Foundation. “That said, I don’t see Congress changing their support for SLS unless they have no other choice.”
The problem with predictions that Congress will kill SLS over its costs and move to a cheaper program built around SpaceX’s cheaper option, said Dreier, is that the mega moon rocket has already built up a firewall of lawmaker support, contract by contract and congressional district by congressional district, over the last decade, more than 3,800 contracts in all 50 states and Puerto Rico. Congress, under both parties, he said, “has showered the program with hundreds of millions of dollars above what NASA asked for every single year of the program’s existence.”
That reflects the origins of SLS, which recycles rocket engines from the canceled space shuttle program (throwing away these reusable engines with each launch). The rocket was born of a deal cooked up by senators from Texas and Florida, including current NASA chief and former senator Nelson, meant to retain space jobs in those states. This bipartisan agreement underlines how support for space exploration mostly lines up by proximity to NASA centers or contractors, rather than any ideological commitment from politicians.
“Despite the delays, the cost overruns and the problems with the development, never once has there been a critical congressional oversight hearing on the program, much less serious discussion about defunding or altering the program in any way,” Dreier said. The opposite happened, in fact: Congress funded an upgraded secondary booster rocket, second launch tower and bigger assembly building at Kennedy Space Center for SLS. “Nothing in congressional activities over the past decade suggests anything less than a total commitment to SLS for the foreseeable future,” he added.
Democracy, not efficiency
Although from the outside, the saga of the SLS and NASA’s plans for the moon and Mars look like a story of endless delays and cost overruns, that is basically how large technological projects work out in a democracy, said W. Henry Lambright, a professor of public administration at Syracuse University. “Democracies are not about efficiency,” he said. Instead, agencies aiming jobs and contracts at congressional districts to build support are sort of the point of all the taxpayer-funded activity that culminates in astronauts returning to the moon. “I think NASA has actually done a pretty good job of navigating a challenging political environment to get this rocket built,” he added.
The disappointment people feel that we aren’t on the moon today is a hangover from the Apollo program, born of a Cold War space race with the Soviet Union that was an exceptional moment in U.S. history, he added, and not a good baseline for space exploration expectations.
Handberg is less confident that SLS will keep going once private industry providers like SpaceX or Blue Origins, owned by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, start selling bigger, cheaper rockets in this decade. Those companies will have their own lobbying arms vying for NASA projects to counterweight the support built up by SLS contracts, he said. “The jobs will still be there; they just might be at a SpaceX factory.” SpaceX and Blue Origins will still launch their rockets at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center if that happens, because the launchpads, assembly buildings and support services, as well as the geography, offer real value.
Regardless, most observers agreed that the Artemis I launch is just a small first step toward any eventual moon base, or even later landing people on Mars, which is Musk’s big ambition. “Mars looks more like the 2050s to me,” said Handberg. “It is a long way away.”
Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.