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NASA’s return to the moon is off to a rocky start

Artemis aims to deliver astronauts back to the lunar surface by 2025, but it’s riding on an old congressional pet project.

January 9, 2023
illustration of an astronaut emerging from the hatch of a lunar vehicle
Richard Chance

It was December 14, 1972, the final day on the moon for the last Apollo mission. The Challenger lander was dusted in a fine coating of gray lunar dirt, called regolith, both inside and out. Geologist Jack Schmitt was packing the sample containers, securing 243 pounds of rocks to bring home. After passing Schmitt the last science instruments, commander Eugene Cernan took a final look at the landscape before climbing into the spacecraft behind him. 

“As we leave the moon,” Cernan radioed to Houston, “we leave as we came, and God willing as we return, with peace and hope for all mankind.” He ascended the ladder, leaving the last set of bootprints on the moon, on a valley between a range of low mountains and soft sculptured hills.

Five decades later, NASA has a plan to send astronauts back to the lunar surface. Called Artemis, after the sister of Apollo in Greek mythology, the project aims to visit a new area of the moon and retrieve new samples, this time with new faces behind the sun visors—including the first woman and first person of color. 

Whether this plan will succeed—and whether a fresh moon landing will inspire a new “Artemis generation” in space exploration, as NASA leadership hopes—is a matter of debate. The differences between Artemis and the Apollo program, which itself fizzled out sooner than many had hoped, are certainly stark. Artemis is built on a less exact, less nimble, and much less well-heeled vision of space exploration than the one that launched Cernan and his predecessors. Where Apollo was conceived and executed as a high-priced monument to American ingenuity and the power of capitalism, its sister program is more a reflection of American politics and the power of inertia.   

Though the program is officially only three years old, elements of Artemis have been in the works for many years, even decades. Its ancillary projects, spread throughout NASA and at university partners across the US, in many cases existed long before the Trump administration gave the program a name. Its origins were rocky even before fueling problems and two hurricanes delayed its first launch in November. 

Artemis has many disparate purposes, serving very different groups. For some space enthusiasts, it’s simply a way back to the moon, a destination that will always loom largest in our collective consciousness. For others, it represents a path to Mars. Some see Artemis as a way to reclaim American superiority in space, something that was most visibly lost when the space shuttle retired in 2011. Still others see it as a means to unlock a new era of scientific discovery and invention, first undertaken during Apollo but arguably begun the first time humans looked at the moon and wondered what it was. 

The project’s first mission, an uncrewed test flight called Artemis 1, thundered to space in the middle of the night on November 16. It was carried into space by the most powerful rocket ever launched, the Space Launch System (SLS). Towering 15 feet taller than the Statue of Liberty, the SLS consists of an orange main tank flanked by white boosters that make it resemble the space shuttle, its progenitor in both propulsion and programmatic style. After multiple missed deadlines and criticism from Congress, multiple White House occupants, and NASA’s own auditors, space exploration fans and scientists  were amped to go back to the moon. 

But overshadowing Artemis is the uncomfortable fact that the rocket, not the moon missions it will carry, has long been the primary goal of NASA’s human spaceflight program. Where exactly that rocket is going has always been secondary—and the destination has changed multiple times. If something goes wrong, or if SLS is deemed too expensive or unsustainable, there’s a chance the entire moon program will fail or at least be similarly judged. This is a wobbly, uncertain start to an effort to return humans to the lunar surface for the first time in a half-century—and could make that return, if it does happen, a very brief one. 

On February 1, 2003, the skies over Texas flashed with what appeared to be a daytime meteor shower. The bright objects were pieces of the space shuttle Columbia, which had broken apart during its 28th reentry through Earth’s atmosphere. As the nation mourned the shuttle’s seven crew members, President George W. Bush began work on a new way forward for NASA. 

Artemis has its roots in that effort. In January 2004, less than a year after the Columbia disaster, Bush announced a Vision for Space Exploration—a reimagining of the space program that called for retiring the shuttle by 2011, scuttling the International Space Station by 2016, and replacing them with a new program called Constellation. Constellation would consist of a new, configurable rocket capable of launching to the moon or even to Mars, named Ares; a new crew vehicle for low Earth orbit, called Orion; and a new lunar lander, named Altair.

But Constellation never coalesced into anything more than a collection of ideas. By the time Barack Obama became president in 2009, the program was already years behind schedule. Obama convened another commission, led by former Lockheed Martin CEO Norman Augustine, to study Constellation. The Augustine Committee judged the project too expensive and underfunded to ever succeed—a fatal combination that watchdogs said would jeopardize other NASA missions. The Obama administration zeroed out the funding for the project, effectively thwarting the nation’s moonward trajectory once again. 

“Everybody who was willing to talk to you about it acknowledged there wasn’t any money planned to go into the big rocket or the lunar lander until after the space station was retired,” recalls Lori Garver, who was deputy administrator at NASA when Constellation fell on the chopping block. “It was just a shell.” 

Shortly after the program got the ax, however, members of Congress insisted on funding the rocket anyway, eager to keep the jobs attached to the effort after the shuttle era ended. Though it was not part of the White House’s budget request, Congress holds the nation’s purse strings and had the power to hand out lucrative contracts to legacy companies like Lockheed and Boeing. 

Obama administration officials scrambled to find a place to send the rocket they were given. They decided on an asteroid. The rocket would be used to retrieve one with a robotic spacecraft, which would tug it closer to Earth for a human landing. “It got funded as a rocket to nowhere, and we at NASA had to figure out something to do with it,” Garver says. The rocket (which was rebranded as the Space Launch System) and the Asteroid Redirect Mission both chugged along separately for the next few years, though many scientists and engineers criticized the asteroid program. The rocket’s first uncrewed launch was initially scheduled for 2016. Launch dates continually slipped in the following six years. 

In the meantime, thanks in part to another program supported by President Obama, the space industry was blossoming. Elon Musk’s SpaceX developed its reusable Falcon 9 rocket (and later its own large rocket, the Falcon Heavy), launching military and civilian satellites for the government. In 2020, the company began carrying up astronauts, restarting the ability to send humans into space from US soil. Other private companies, including Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin, started launching civilians, mainly celebrities and tourists, into space. Meanwhile, NASA engineers continued toiling with space shuttle technology. Legacy contractors like Boeing continued to receive large bonus payments for working on the SLS, despite delays and mushrooming costs—drawing criticism from congressional watchdog groups and NASA auditors. 

Shortly after Donald Trump took office in 2017, the much-maligned asteroid program was canceled. Trump’s team tried to cancel the rocket too, but the effort was blocked by powerful senators, especially Richard Shelby of Alabama, who chaired the Senate Appropriations Committee and was SLS’s chief champion (prompting some to call it the “Senate Launch System”). So the rocket remained—with no destination until 2019, when Trump’s NASA administrator, James Bridenstine, announced Artemis, a series of missions to orbit the moon, land on its surface, and begin building a permanent settlement. The first crewed mission is scheduled to loop around the moon in 2024, and the first Artemis landing is currently scheduled for 2025.

The scientific and cultural payoff for a lunar return could be huge. Scientists have many lingering questions about the moon’s formation, and Earth’s early history, that may be answerable with fresh samples from the lunar far side. Researchers are already preparing a flotilla of instruments and robotic experiments to fly on Artemis-adjacent private landers, funded through the Commercial Lunar Payload Services program, which may pave the way for a return to the moon that distributes risk and reward between NASA and private industry. 

NASA’s public-facing descriptions of Artemis talk about “going forward” to the moon, not going back. Much of the rhetoric around the moon return includes an eventual trip to Mars as well. Agency officials often say that going back to the moon will teach us how to live and work on another world, paving a path for eventual human exploration of the Red Planet. 

Among those preparing for the lunar return is Chris Dreyer, a mechanical engineering professor at the Colorado School of Mines. Dreyer is leading a NASA-funded project studying lunar construction. His team is designing an autonomous moon bulldozer, which would scoop and flatten regolith to prepare a construction site for a landing pad. Artemis landers, which will be built by SpaceX, will be heavier and taller than the spindly Apollo lunar modules, which is why they will need a landing pad; otherwise, the strength of their own exhaust would reshape the ground beneath them, blowing regolith about like the powdered sugar on a doughnut. A landing pad will ensure that landers won’t tip over as they set down. 

NASA's Space Launch System (SLS) rocket, with the Orion spacecraft aboard, is seen at sunrise atop the mobile launcher.

“If you look through all of Apollo, you realize every landing was a bit of an adventure in avoiding boulder fields. Everything was just at the limit of what was possible,” Dreyer says. “We could go back and do that again, but it wouldn’t advance anything. Part of Artemis is about advancing living and working in space, and I see this construction as part of that.”

Artemis will make those advances slowly. The rocket is scheduled to launch once every year and a half; critics argue that momentum and public support could wane with such long waits between launches. Previous exploration programs have faced dwindling interest over time.Apollo’s fast and furious pace ensured that the first landing happened within just eight years, but by the sixth Apollo landing, Americans had begun arguing for spending on domestic programs instead. By the 25th shuttle mission, NASA tried to inject new excitement by putting a teacher on board. Christa McAuliffe was killed along with six other crew members when the space shuttle Challenger was destroyed just over a minute after it launched in January 1986. 

Critics of the Space Launch System argue that the rocket is unsustainable by design, relying on an old and potentially quite expensive way to get to space. Much of SLS is a holdover from the space shuttle. NASA had 16 leftover shuttle main engines, 14-foot-long cones that were clustered in trefoil arrays on the bottom end of the shuttle orbiters. Those will be repurposed to power SLS. But while the shuttle orbiter, engines, and external tanks were designed to be reusable, SLS and its engines were not. The first Artemis flight used old shuttle engines; the next planned launches will use others. But after that, new engines will be needed. Aerojet Rocketdyne has a $1.79 billion contract to begin building more, starting with the as-yet-unplanned Artemis 5 mission.

“They’ve designed a rocket that is basically unsustainable, because it’s completely throwaway. The only bit that comes back is Orion,” says Clive Neal, a lunar geologist at Notre Dame and an outspoken critic of NASA’s moon plans. “I get incredibly frustrated.”

NASA argues that it is using the most-tested rocket engines in history, and that recycling them for the moon saves money. But not that much money, it turns out. In early 2022, NASA’s inspector general told Congress that the first three flights of the SLS would cost $4.1 billion apiece, a level he called “unsustainable.” NASA and Boeing later said the price tag would be lower, and outside analysts have said each launch would cost between $876 million and $2 billion, depending on how you break down overhead costs. 

“Depending on how you look at it, the SLS is either a product of a broken system that curries favor to wealthy industries or an example of representative democracy working as it should,” wrote Casey Dreier, chief advocate and senior space policy advisor at the Planetary Society, in a recent essay. 

There may be alternative ways to return humans to the moon. Several heavy-launch commercial rockets are in development. SpaceX is building a reusable vehicle called Starship, which includes a configuration that is aimed at taking astronauts all the way to the moon; Blue Origin has a reusable rocket called New Glenn; and even legacy rocket builders United Launch Alliance have a huge rocket called the Vulcan Centaur, which is slated to begin launching science instruments and privately funded landers to the moon early this year. Garver says she was surprised that NASA under President Joe Biden chose a version of Starship to take Artemis astronauts to the lunar surface: “It’s an acknowledgment that Starship is going to work. And if Starship is going to work, then you don’t need SLS and Orion.” 

Artemis has created jobs in every state and poured research money into dozens of universities. There’s a chance the program may survive in pieces even if the rocket doesn’t. Previous human space exploration programs were consolidated under one umbrella within NASA, but for Artemis, agency management under Trump instead established a more distributed method for funding different projects. While NASA’s inspector general criticized this approach, some observers believe it may make Artemis more sustainable in the long term, and better able to withstand shifting political winds. 

There is something indefinable and awe-inspiring about sending humans to another world. In some sense we share their experience; they are avatars for us all. 

As of now, the rocket is not Artemis’s only hurdle in a path toward long-term human habitation on the moon. Space travel is still difficult, even when you do it all the time. And going back to the moon is proving to be hard for NASA. Some observers believe a human landing in 2025 is wildly ambitious. 

If Artemis were solely about science, NASA would send robots, as it has done with missions to the sun and out to Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, and beyond the edge of the solar system. But the moon still beckons, and the call is for human visitors like Cernan, not just landers and rovers. China and the European Space Agency have set their sights on this achievement too. Robots just aren’t enough. “It is fundamentally changing what it means to be human, on some level,” says Teasel Muir-Harmony, the Apollo curator at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington.

There is something indefinable and awe-inspiring about sending humans to another world. In some sense we share their experience; they are avatars for us all. That may be why, despite criticism of the rocket, it’s difficult to find anyone who will say something negative about Artemis. Returning to the moon is a human imperative for some people. “It is a desire written in the human heart,” as Bush said, memorializing the Columbia crew. The experience will never cease to be amazing, and for space exploration advocates, it will never cease to be a worthy goal. 

Artemis, like America itself, is an experiment begun years ago with good intentions. It was flawed from the outset, in part because of those good intentions and in part for more cynical reasons. It was bequeathed to hardworking people who genuinely want something good to come of it but are hamstrung by problems that predate them and may be too fundamental to ever fully fix, at least in the project’s current form. Yet it is all we have, for now. The rocket remains funded. The missions are scheduled. NASA says, “We are going.” And the moon will be waiting, indifferent to which vehicle we use to get there.

Rebecca Boyle is a science journalist based in Colorado Springs. Her first book, Walking with the Moon, is forthcoming from Random House in 2024.

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