On a recent Sunday afternoon, a black and white spacecraft flew through the atmosphere, ionizing molecules and creating a plasma inferno. In the midst of this fireball, two astronauts took shelter in the small harbor of Dragonship Endeavorwhile the carbon-based heat shield crisped up and flaked off.
After a few scorching minutes, Attempt lose most of its orbital velocity. Falling into the lower atmosphere, the parachutes were deployed in a careful sequence, and the spacecraft drifted from the blue skies to the blue seas. Astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken were safe. They were home. For the first time in 4.5 decades, astronauts returned from space and splashed into the ocean like the Apollo-era heroes who walked on the moon.
The landing came as NASA, under the direction of Vice President Mike Pence, is urgently working to return humans to the moon by 2024. This is a formidable task for the agency’s administrator, Jim Bridenstine, who balances political, funding and technical hurdles. to advance NASA and its contractors.
Immediately after landing, Bridenstine revamped his pitch for this Artemis Moon program during a splashdown press conference. He wore a polo shirt with the Artemis logo and said: “We must ensure that a new generation does not miss this opportunity. Today was a big win, but it was just the beginning. The Artemis program is our sustainable return to the moon.”
Then Bridenstine added this comment: “If we do things right, we will get the strong bipartisan support we need.” This was clearly a nod to the funding needed to run Artemis. But what does ‘doing things right’ actually mean? On the technical side, this means using space hardware that can get the job done. On the political side, it means making choices that satisfy those in Congress who pay the bills.
When it comes to spacecraft, rockets and the moon, these two things may not be the same.
This gap couldn’t be more obvious when: Attempt splashed down. The success of Crew Dragon, a relatively lightweight, modestly priced and reusable spacecraft, has led some aerospace engineers to propose that the space agency reconsider its plan to use larger, much more expensive vehicles — which have been passed by Congress for more than a decade. be defended – must delete to perform the moon landing.
After the successful landing in early August, Crew Dragon has proven itself, say these proponents. It’s been to space and back with humans in it. With some modifications, it could be beefed up to support longer duration missions to get astronauts to orbit around the moon and safely back to Earth. Why wait for the more expensive government vehicles when commercial solutions are already available?
“Do we really want to go to the moon, don’t we?” asked Robert Zubrin, an American aerospace engineer who founded the Mars Society. “The question for Mike Pence is quite simple: do you really want to go to the moon in 2024 or not? Because we have the tools to go.”
The current plan
Over the past 18 months, Bridenstine has been crafting a plan that strikes a balance between technical and political concerns to reach the moon.
The administrator understands that commercial space, led by SpaceX, has been staged and delivered for NASA. He has sought to include these new companies – which tend to operate faster and for less guaranteed money than traditional airline companies such as Boeing – into the Artemis program whenever possible. They were allowed to bid on projects to build a lander to take people from the lunar orbit to the lunar surface and to take cargo to the moon.
Some in Congress have already criticized this approach. Some House Democrats, including Oklahoma’s Kendra Horn and Texas’ Eddie Bernice Johnson, have argued that commercial companies should not be allowed to build the Human Landing System. Instead, they say, NASA should design, own and operate the lander. So far, Bridenstine has been able to resist this.
But there is a red line that he does not dare to cross. In the Senate, influential Senate committee chairman Republican Richard Shelby has said that humans should be launched to the moon in the Orion spacecraft, atop a Space Launch System rocket. This can generally be considered the position of Congress. And if Bridenstine has any hope of winning Congressional money for a lunar lander, he must abide by these rules.
Thus, under the current plan, Bridenstine has shared contracts with a number of different contractors, both traditional and commercial space. “I think we have a good balance,” he told Ars in an interview.
Politically, his strategy seems to be working, at least for now. While Artemis hasn’t gotten all the funding it needs, it’s getting one. But what about technically? Is there any hope of reaching 2024?