Today NASA is set for a fuel test of its SLS rocket Artemis. The beleaguered, big budget rocket has failed two prior tests and in an effort to ensure it doesn’t get its engines churning and find itself unable to go all the way (again), NASA engineers are revving up for a test drive to ensure the hydrogen fittings the caused prior issues are addressed.
David Brown is the author of The Mission, which details many aspects of the SLS program and how Artemis came to be the unlikely solution to our problem of being unable to go interplanetary. He recently sat down with ClearanceJobs to talk about the Artemis launch. He twice attempted to see the program take flight and was met both times by the rocket’s fueling woes.
He discussed how his writing on the Europa Clipper and efforts to explore Jupiter’s moons also led him to get up and close to the budget and political battles that led to the Artemis program.
“Although NASA has a great many missions that cover literally everywhere in the universe in one way or another, everything really is connected in a lot of strange and sometimes unexpected ways,” said Brown. “Unexpected even for the people who work for NASA and who launch these missions.”
Brown unpacked more about Artemis in a recent ClearanceJobs piece, writing about how Artemis was as much the brainchild of senators as it was of scientists. When it comes to rockets getting off of the ground and all things NASA, it turns out the programs are more swayed by politics than planetary science.
“In the case of NASA this is a rocket whose lineage goes back to the George W. Bush administration,” said Brown. “There was a program called Constellation which you could think of as sort of a proto Artemis, and the goal was to go to the moon and after that go to Mars. It traces its lineage back to an earlier program from George H.W. Bush whose goal was to build a space station, and then go to Mars. And Artemis’ job now is to build a new space station, one that orbits in cislunar space – in other words that space between earth and the moon.
“One problem that NASA runs into perennially, is that it is an office of the President of the United States. Every time a new White House comes in, as soon as they need to find more money in the budget, the easiest thing to cut is space.”
In the political world, where wins need to be tangible and real time, politicians looking for a campaign promise they can get behind often settle for a less significant mission than moon or Mars. Or on the other side, propose missions they can talk about without having to worry if they can actually implement them.
In those cases, “you get to have the inspirational speech without finding a way to pay for it,” Brown says.
Is SLS a Waste of Money
There are perhaps two key ways to look at SLS – as a phenomenal and fundamental waste of taxpayer money, given the rocket’s hefty price tag and one-time use model. Or as the crux holding the U.S. space program and our hopes of getting back to the moon – and beyond – together. When it comes to propelling the U.S. back into the Moon and then Mars, the value may be less about Artemis as a capability than it is about the rocket as an idea – that the U.S. can, and should, pursue interplanetary travel.
“If we look at SLS – so much of NASA is always not what it seems,” said Brown. “The international space station is the greatest waste of money in perhaps the history of the United States. From the point of view of the International Space Station as an investment in learning Russian aerospace abilities it was the deal of the century at $100 billion dollars. When we look at SLS, $25 billion dollars, it’s an embarrassment of a rocket, it’s a colossal failure…however…here is where it might actually be quite a deal for the American taxpayer and certainly for the American space program: NASA repeatedly has tried to get a moon mission going or get a Mars mission going. And it has repeatedly failed, and one reason why it has failed all of these times is because there has been no sort of rally point, no thing to go forward. We do very well when we have a thing to organize our forces. In this case SLS sort of turned into the thing. It turned into the foundation of human space flight.”
And it’s not just the U.S. SLS can galvanize, but the international partners across Europe, Japan, and Canada who have invested time, money, and resources to make Artemis “the most diverse human exploration program in history,” according to NASA.
“SLS turned into a battering ram,” said Brown. “It’s really pushed forward for the first time since the 1960s, our lunar aspirations.
The fact that NASA is finally leaving low earth orbit, that’s no small achievement. NASA has not landed or soft landed an atom on the moon since 1972; that’s the sort of thing we’re going to see in the next five to ten years.”
What to Expect from the Artemis Launch
Whether or not Artemis will get off the ground this month remains to be seen – and much depends on today’s fuel testing. If it does, those who are able to be there should expect something unlike anything they’ve ever seen.
“I’ve not encountered a rocket this powerful – nobody has, or few people have…SLS should be more powerful than the shuttle,” said Brown. “When it actually launches, it’s going to be a situation where you see it, you see it light up, then you hear it rumble very loudly, then you feel it, and the coins in your pocket are going to start rattling together – it’s serious business.”
This December marks 50 years since a man stepped foot on the moon. If the Artemis program gets its way, our path toward a fully stationed moon outpost could come in just five or so years. And from the moon, to Mars and beyond.