NASA’s magnificent new rocket launched into orbit for the first time early Wednesday morning, illuminating the night sky and speeding on a voyage that will carry an unmanned capsule around the moon and back.
This journey, reminiscent of the bygone Apollo period, is a key test for NASA’s Artemis programme, which intends to return people to the moon after five decades in low-Earth orbit.
After the launch, Charlie Blackwell-Thompson, the launch director, told her colleagues at the Kennedy Space Center, “We are all a part of something extremely remarkable.” “The first flight of Artemis. The first step toward restoring our nation to the moon and Mars.”
For NASA, the mission inaugurates a new era of lunar exploration, one that seeks to unravel scientific mysteries in the shadows of craters in the polar regions, test technologies for envisioned journeys to Mars, and encourage private enterprise to pursue new entrepreneurial frontiers further out in the solar system.
As China and other nations compete to explore space, Wednesday’s launch shows a growing philosophical divide about how the United States should pursue its space ambitions. To far, NASA has spent more than $40 billion to launch Artemis. The expenditure illustrates how the space programme continues to resemble the manner in which the Pentagon constructs aircraft carriers and F-35 fighters: expensive, slow, and primarily controlled by the federal government due to the lack of a commercial market for the large rockets and deep-space transports that NASA deems necessary for its moon exploration programme.
The alternative option, in which NASA would be a client or passenger on private spacecraft, might be less expensive and more expedient, depending on new spacecraft constructed by entrepreneurial businesses like as SpaceX, headed by Elon Musk.
“If you were serious about returning to the moon, you would go all-in on commercial alternatives,” said Charles Miller, a senior consultant for commercial space operations at NASA from 2009 to 2012.
However, the commercial method may not give precisely what NASA and other government decision-makers need, and businesses often modify their objectives or go out of business.
In the geopolitical backdrop for policymakers is an intensifying rivalry with China, the only nation having robotic spacecraft on the lunar surface at now. China finished building of its own space station this month. By the 2030s, Chinese space authorities want to construct a lunar research base and deploy men there.
Bill Nelson, the administrator of NASA, has expressed fear that China may become the dominant lunar superpower, similar to the competition between the United States and the Soviet Union in the 1960s that prompted the Apollo moon landings from 1969 to 1972.
In a study from the previous year, the NASA inspector general predicted that by the time Artemis III returned from the moon, NASA would have spent $93 billion on the programme, and each launch of the Space Launch System and Orion would cost more than $4 billion. The cost overruns were driven in part by technical issues, poor management, and the modification of NASA’s objectives and timelines. Similar to the Saturn V, the Space Launch System rocket is only used once before crashing into the water.
Sharon Cobb, assistant programme manager for the Space Launch System at NASA, said in an August interview, “We’re expecting to bring it to roughly $2 billion per launch by simplifying the production.”
Although less powerful than SLS, SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket costs $90 million each launch. And SpaceX’s Starship, a massive next-generation rocket presently under construction that is also essential to NASA’s plans for manned moon landings, will be fully reusable, and Mr. Musk has said, somewhat optimistically, that a launch may cost as low as $10 million in the future.
NASA has adopted a hybrid plan for Artemis, with a standard programme for the rocket and crew capsule and a commercial strategy for the lunar lander. NASA is acquiring a fixed-price flight of SpaceX’s Starship to serve as the Artemis III lander in the latter part of the decade. The Starship will rendezvous with Orion in lunar orbit and transport two humans to the surface near the south pole of the moon.
Proponents of commercial space contend that history does not support this dismal viewpoint. Rather, they credit entrepreneurs from a century ago for transforming aviation from an exclusive luxury into a safe, economical mode of transportation for almost everyone.