Sunday, August 14th, 2022

NASA’s largest rocket since the Saturn V is all stacked and ready to go. Now what?

NASA’s largest rocket since the Saturn V is all stacked and ready to go. Now what?

Information about NASA’s largest rocket since the Saturn V is all stacked and ready to go. Now what?

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Getting to this point with Artemis has been extraordinarily difficult, and something of a measure of the frustration generated by a program getting batted around both by constantly changing administrations and by a Congress that has long treated NASA as a means of trading votes. The effort to create a follow-up to the space shuttle began in 2005 with the Constellation program. That program would have created a variety of rockets using the name “Ares”—from the Ares I through the Ares V—designed to give NASA some flexibility in launching crewed missions. The Ares designs were intended to make heavy reuse of existing shuttle components, allowing for rapid progress. For example, the Ares I was built with a first stage that was essentially one of the solid rocket boosters from the shuttle.

SLS / Orion fully stacked inside Vehicle Assembly Building
SLS / Orion fully stacked inside Vehicle Assembly Building

When the Obama administration moved in, a preliminary report found that there were problems with some of the Ares designs, including a potentially unacceptable level of vibrations from that solid rocket booster. The Office of Science and Technology Policy called for a full review of the entire system in 2009, and the resulting Augustine Committee was tasked with not only a technical review, but aligning NASA’s plans with a series of long-term goals. The conclusion of that committee: Constellation couldn’t go forward without a large increase in funding, and even then, some of the systems would need major revisions.

That led to the creation of the Space Launch System program in 2011, the same year as the last shuttle flight. Even then, the expectations put a first test of the system no sooner than 2016, which is why President Barack Obama pushed for the Commercial Crew Program, understanding that America needed options if it wasn’t going to have a long-term dependency on Russia for taking humans into space. As it turned out, the first crewed Commercial Crew flight, SpaceX’s second Crew Dragon flight, didn’t come until 2020. SLS has still not left the pad. 

However, in the last year, Crew Dragon has taken NASA astronauts to the International Space Station three times (with a fourth trip planned this month) as well as taken four “space tourists” on a multiday orbital flight. Even though Boeing’s Starliner has failed to make its scheduled appearance in the lineup and is unlikely to fly until late in 2022, the movement of SLS and the Orion crew capsule toward the pad means that NASA is finally getting close to the human flight capability it hoped to have five years ago.

In the next few years, both Crew Dragon and Starliner should be available for work in low orbit. That means taking people to the International Space Station (ISS), completing orbital missions, or reaching any other scientific or commercial stations. NASA is also reportedly considering expanding the Commercial Crew program to consider some of the other contenders who didn’t make the final cut when the program was reduced to SpaceX and Boeing. 

At the same time, Artemis (the combination of SLS and Orion) should begin working to take humans beyond Earth’s orbit. 

At the moment, NASA’s plans for the Artemis program include an Artemis II flight that would repeat the Artemis I flight, but with a crew on board. One interesting aspect of these missions is that by design, they will take much longer than any Apollo flight. NASA is looking at flight profiles that would take between four to six weeks to complete the Earth to moon, moon to Earth mission. That means that any astronauts on board will be outside low-Earth orbit far longer than on any previous mission. Even without landing, Artemis II will be a good testbed for long-term protection of astronauts on missions into the radiation-harsh environment beyond Earth’s orbit.

After that, NASA wants to begin landings, but there are a whole suite of systems that have to come online first. That’s because the current version of SLS isn’t designed to carry the kind of “full stack” that the Saturn V toted. Instead, NASA plans to create a space station that will orbit the moon, rather than the Earth (called Lunar Gateway or Gateway Station), and a landing system that will ferry humans from Gateway Station to the moon and back again (the Human Landing System, or HLS). 

Recently, SpaceX was given a contract to create the HLS based off a version of the Starship system that they’ve been testing in Texas. However, that’s the contract that Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin systems has been attacking, and progress on HLS is currently tied up in a lawsuit. In addition, the first draft of 2022 funding legislation includes language that would force NASA to select a second landing system, though it doesn’t include the funds NASA says it needs to make that possible. (The current Senate draft appears to include $100 million in additional funding for HLS, which is about a quarter of what NASA says would be necessary to create a second system.) 

NASA originally awarded the Human Landing System contract to SpaceX, but that decision is now under review after a lawsuit from Blue Origin.

When it comes to Gateway, the first components are planned to be put in place in 2024 to support the Artemis III mission—the mission that’s supposed to include the first human landing on the moon since 1972. That mission is, of course, dependent on HLS, so if progress on Artemis I and Artemis II continues, that landing system could easily become the key delay … unless the hold up is the spacesuits, because a NASA report from August cast doubt on the new generation of moon suits being available in time for a 2024 landing.

Not that anyone really expects 2024 to happen. President Joe Biden has described the date as “a stretch,” and while it’s officially still NASA’s target for Artemis III, everything—everything—would have to go almost perfectly from now until then to put a 2024 boot print on the designated landing site near the lunar south pole. 

There’s also a wild card in this whole program in the form of the same system that is designed to create the HLS: SpaceX’s Starship. SpaceX currently has a prototype Starship and Superheavy booster sitting on test stands in Boca Chica, Texas. In the last week, they completed static fire testing of the prototype (known as Starship 20), and it’s expected that the booster (Booster 4) will soon undergo similar tests. All of this is leading up to a proposed flight around the end of the year in which SpaceX would launch this early version of Starship into a purposely brief flight, with both booster and Starship landing in the ocean. If that test goes well, Elon Musk has hinted that Starship alone might be capable of reaching the moon before 2024. 

There is, of course, a catch in that idea, and it’s a big one. SpaceX has made tremendous progress with their system, and their open air development and testing program have been extremely exciting for everyone interested in space technology. If Starship/Superheavy reaches orbit in the next few months, it’s the start of what promises to be a genuine revolution in spaceflight—one that could drop the cost of getting cargo to orbit by more than an order of magnitude. However, the difference between that and a human-rated ship that NASA or anyone else would feel comfortable placing a crew on board is a large one. No one is likely to forget the spectacle of early SpaceX tests in which attempted landings of Starship ended with a fiery explosion. So far, SpaceX has achieved one successful landing of a Starship after a high-altitude test flight. It’s going to take a lot more than that before regular crewed missions can begin. Like … a lot. 

Right now—this month, this week, this minute—SLS is not only looking good, but looking like the only reasonable ride for NASA’s plans to take humans beyond low Earth orbit. Unless something turns up in the next few weeks (and, following the success of the second hot fire test, that seems much less likely) an early 2022 launch of Artemis I seems to be on track. If that goes well, Artemis II could follow as soon as 2023. 

In Friday’s conference, Daily Kos got the opportunity to ask NASA Deputy Associate Administrator Tom Whitmeyer and Artemis I Mission Manager Mike Sarafin about reports that NASA had considered speeding up the schedule by putting astronauts on Artemis I. While Sarafin confirmed that this scenario had been examined during the early stages of planning, he stated they had not met NASA’s benchmarks for safety. Whitmeyer insisted that it had been a long time since such an idea had been considered. 

As it turns out, that was a good decision. Right now, it’s not the gap from Artemis I to Artemis II that appears to be the obstacle to getting humans back to the Moon. When it comes to Artemis III, it’s everything other than Orion and SLS that’s the issue.

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