Day of Action Deep Prep: Artemis

The Planetary Society supports a step-wise approach to human space exploration, with Mars serving as the destination goal directing and guiding program decisions in the near-term.

Project Artemis largely aligns with this philosophy. In our Human Spaceflight principles, The Planetary Society states that the immediate goal of NASA’s human exploration program should be to go beyond low-Earth orbit and return to the cis-lunar space; to develop the coalitions necessary to support an enduring presence beyond Earth. Artemis does this.

Artemis is a mishmash of a program, assembled out of various existing and new projects NASA had at its disposal, designed to establish a political constituency committed to a long-term lunar exploration effort. It’s not the most elegant program design, but it has a strong chance of reaching critical mass to potentially be the next long-term program after the International Space Station, potentially lasting decades.

Artemis Overview (early 2021)
Artemis Overview (early 2021) Image: NASA

Creating inertia for lunar exploration is the key thing to keep in mind. The Shuttle program lasted nearly 40 years. The ISS is approaching 40 years as well (and will likely go to at least 45). Both Shuttle and ISS survived political near-death experiences early on in their development, but once they got going, they endured for decades. That’s a reality we can use to ensure a long commitment to lunar exploration that builds humanity’s confidence and capabilities in deep space.

We should not gloss over the difficulties in achieving Artemis’ goals. The original landing goal of 2024 was never realistic, particularly in light of the underwhelming funding levels provided by Congress. NASA is currently reviewing the schedule, but the first landing will likely not be until 2026 at the earliest. There are also significant challenges remaining in developing new spacesuits, the Gateway orbiting station, and the Human Landing System (HLS) lunar lander (more on that in the next section).

A report from NASA’s Office of the Inspector General is worth quoting from at length:

“NASA’s goal to land astronauts on the Moon’s South Pole in late 2024 faces multiple significant challenges including major technical risks, an unrealistic development schedule, and lower-than-requested funding levels. As a result, the 2024 date will likely slip to 2026 at the earliest. On top of an overly optimistic development schedule, the HLS bid protests to GAO delayed the Human Landing System (HLS) Program’s schedule by 6 months with an additional 3-month delay due to Blue Origin's follow-up lawsuit at the U.S. Court of Federal Claims. Moreover, delays in developing the Gateway will likely preclude the lunar outpost’s availability to provide communications and supplies for both the Orion and HLS during NASA’s early Moon landing missions.”

Starship on the Moon
Starship on the Moon SpaceX's Starship vehicle sits on the Moon as NASA astronauts explore the surface.Image: SpaceX

Human Landing System is our Key Priority

When advocating for human planetary exploration, The Planetary Society takes a strategic view and focuses on key elements related to our Mars goals. Namely, the Human Landing System which is now the responsibility of both SpaceX and Blue Origin. NASA has committed up to $2.9 billion to adapt SpaceX’s Starship to function as a lunar lander. By doing so, the space agency is also indirectly investing in several novel new technologies, including orbiting fuel depots, rapid reusability, and a super-heavy lift launch vehicle — all of which directly feed into future Mars exploration needs.

Blue Origin received its contract for the human landing system in May of 2023. NASA will provide up to $3.4 billion for development of the Blue Moon lander, with Blue Origin paying for the remaining costs.

As we stated during our formal input to Congress a few years ago, public-private partnerships to develop lunar landers is a big experiment, but an experiment worth running. We know the outcome of classic contracting methods (cost overruns, schedule delays, cancellation). It’s worth trying something new.

Congress has supported steady growth of funding for the HLS program in order to support two providers. The Biden administration requested $1.88 billion for the HLS program in FY 2024, and Congress appears likely to support that.

Legislation

As of this writing (July 2023) Both House and Senate have released their appropriations legislation for NASA's 2024 fiscal year. Artemis fares very well, and both chambers provide growth to the program even within a flat overall budget for NASA.

FY2023 EnactedFY2024 PBRSenate CJSHouse CJS
Orion Crew Vehicle$1,339$1,225$1,225$1,225
SLS$2,600$2,506$2,506$2,506
Exploration Ground Systems$799.2$794.2$794.2$794.2
Artemis Campaign Development$2,600$3,235$3,235~$3,000
Total, Deep Space Exploration7,4457,9717,7367,971

Additional Reading Materials

Goals for the reader

  • Explain NASA's Artemis program's major elements
  • Understand the importance of the HLS, its relationship to Mars exploration, and the importance of experimenting with public-private partnerships
  • Know some of the challenges facing the program, both funding and technical