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, as of April 2021, is now the responsibility of SpaceX. NASA has committed up to $2.9 billion in adapting SpaceX’s new spacecraft function as a lunar lander. By doing so, it is also indirectly investing in several key technologies, including orbiting fuel depots, rapid reusability, and a super-heavy lift launch vehicle — all of which directly feed into future Mars exploration needs.

The awarding of this contract was the source of consternation by both other commercial companies (namely Blue Origin, which filed a protest and lawsuit against the award, both of which were dismissed) and by established aerospace contractors, who are attempting to persuade Congress to mandate a more conservative contracting method for lunar landing development that would benefit their business models.

Neither has so far succeeded in this, and it is important to note that NASA has been cleared to work with SpaceX, and the money has begun to flow to support the HLS project.

As we stated during our formal input to Congress in 2020, a public-private partnership with SpaceX to develop a lunar lander is an 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 with a company that has a proven track-record of success and is investing its own future in the same goal.

Legislation

The immediate political issue is whether NASA should contract a second provider for the HLS, as it did for commercial crew and commercial cargo. The argument is that a second HSL contract would provide critical program redundancy should Starship be delayed or fail.

In June of 2021 the Senate passed the United States Innovation and Competition Act of 2021, a sprawling bill addressing science, technology, and manufacturing needs throughout the country. Within it was a full NASA authorization bill, which directs the space agency to select a second HLS provider, it authorizes up to $10 billion over the next 5 years (authorizing, in this case, is not the same as an appropriation, which is an annual process and the responsibility of a separate congressional committee).

The Planetary Society’s view is that this is a “nice-to-have” — redundancy is important but not critical, given the past performance of SpaceX, and that a second provider would have to be supported by “new funding”, that is, funding not taken from any other part of the agency. Given a choice between a second HLS provider and other NASA initiatives — particularly in science or Artemis related — we must choose the wider set of programs. If the money is to be added, then it’s good policy. If Congress is unwilling to fund a second provider, then we shouldn’t force NASA to have an unfunded liability.

Both the Senate and House FY 2022 appropriations provide a minor bump to the requested HLS funding, but neither provides an increase on the scale of supporting a 2nd provider.

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

Day of Action

The Planetary Society's premier global advocacy event. Held annually in the Spring.