A day late and a dollar short. Or in the case of NASA’s Artemis missions, decades late and billions of dollars over budget. On Aug. 29, the Artemis 1 rocket launch was scrubbed for the second time, suffering a major setback hours before liftoff due to a hydrogen fuel leak. With the ultimate goal of sustained human presence on the moon, this first mission seeks to send a crew capsule into lunar orbit with test dummies as an assurance measure for future missions. This project, first conceived in 2010 and initially scheduled to have its first test flight in 2017, has now been delayed further into 2022 and possibly much later. What could cause such squandering of funds, time and energy? At first glance, we could point fingers at engineers unable to properly account for the superficial problems that compromised the mission’s launch. On closer inspection, the older rocket parts and designs are the product of decades of pork barrel politics to appease politicians who decide the space agency’s funding.
The history of space exploration is a tale of wasted potential and missed opportunities. When humans left the moon for the last time in December of 1972, closing the first chapter on manned efforts to set foot on our nearest cosmic neighbor, it seemed a precedent was set for the rest of our solar system. NASA had designed a fruitful plan off the back of the Apollo moon missions to build a reusable space vehicle that would cut costs to leave Earth, and help to build a lunar base as a launch-pad to get to other planetary bodies. As an official agency of the United States government, NASA’s road map to the stars was first at the mercy of President Richard Nixon, who slashed the program’s budget to ribbons in the 1970s as a reaction to the costs of Mars expeditions. The only thing that remained of the project was the reusable Space Shuttle, which reduced the distances of space travel to Earth’s orbit. Following further budget cuts, the Challenger disaster of 1986 and the Columbia disaster of 2003, the Space Shuttle was retired and with it the capacity to regularly launch people and equipment into space.
The following decades were spent recreating capabilities that we already had, and admittedly disposed of. Since reusability was a priority to make missions cost effective, and each flight stood at around $1.5 billion, the Space Shuttle, no longer the pinnacle of state of the art space technology, continued to serve as the blueprint for future missions. In the 2000s, the Bush administration chose to invest in Constellation, an enormously expensive program designed to establish a permanent presence on the moon, drawing heavily from existing Space Shuttle systems and components with a cost-saving incentive. This incentive was quickly trampled, with NASA estimating a $24.5 billion price tag to develop the desired rocket, Ares 1, despite younger private companies like SpaceX only requiring hundreds of millions to produce the next generation of rockets and spacecraft.
In 2010, the Obama administration attempted to abandon the Constellation program to proceed with missions beyond that of the moon, much to the disapproval of Congress which cited the goal of maintaining a workforce totaling in the thousands along with their skills and capabilities. In response, a provision was added to NASA’s authorization act to extend and modify existing contracts for Constellation and the Space Shuttle into what would later encompass the Artemis missions.
This unfortunately takes us back to the present, with the Artemis 1 mission comprising an Orion spacecraft sitting atop a rocket known as the Space Launch System (SLS). Rather than develop a new engine for the massive new rocket, SLS’s engineers adopted and adapted the RS-25 engine that powered the Space Shuttle. Suffering once again at the hands of politicians, the brilliant minds that NASA’s engineers and scientists have to offer are forced to construct a massive piece of technology that is not only as expensive as it is obsolete, but plagued to sit on the sidelines for years before it’s in the condition to fly again.
During a Congress committee hearing in 2017, a team of panel experts from NASA suggested some major deviations away from old technology, and towards new commercial partnerships and outsourcing strategies. With the message falling on deaf ears, U.S. representatives naively started making audacious goals about manned missions to Mars within the decade, despite the evident lack of funds and resources needed to contribute to such an intensive commitment to human exploration. In an era of tightening budgets and newer technologies, Congress is still hopelessly determined to rely on expensive architecture it employed over a half century ago – despite a renewed enthusiasm for the most exciting of missions.
The reality of our failure in space exploration is fairly simple. As long as the government and its uninformed politicians continue to play the role of puppet master, the frontiers which we’ve already reached will remain the sum of our space ambitions. The outdated methods and outcomes tying down our money and resources are stifling the launch of interplanetary travel.