NASA spends $4 billion filming mannequins around the moon on Artemis

The moon will have to wait for the visit of Commander Moonikin Campos and his colleagues, Helga and Zohar. NASA had to cancel on Monday its first test launch of its giant space rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS), planned as a 42-day, $4.1 billion mission to circle the moon and bring back the three “mannequins” on Earth.

The scrub, blamed on a leaking liquid hydrogen pipe meant to cool one of the rocket’s engines, is just the latest delay from a space launcher with years behind schedule, billions over budget and already obsolete. The next launch attempt is scheduled for Friday.

“It’s a rocket to somewhere. Just somewhere, no one knows exactly where,” said NASA Watch editor Keith Cowing. “There’s nothing wrong with the rocket, per se, it’s just that the design was commissioned by members of Congress who are well known rocket scientists.”

The program has its origins in 2010, when a bipartisan group of senators from the space states of Alabama, Texas, Florida and Maryland (including current NASA administrator, former astronaut Bill Nelson) forced NASA and the Obama administration to monitor the layoffs. with the last space shuttle flight. The Statue of Liberty-sized space launch system will be the most powerful rocket in the world once launched, capable of delivering 59,000 pounds of cargo to orbit beyond the moon. The rocket is a central part of current US plans to build a permanent moon base, a national goal embraced by both the Biden and Trump administrations — with little notice or attention from the nation — and eventually to go to Mars.

Image of dummy in orange spacesuit strapped to test seat

High goals – and even higher budgets

Earlier this month, NASA announced just over a dozen possible sites for this moon base, clustered around the lunar south pole, which hopefully hides frozen comet water in its craters. shaded for the future inhabitants of the moon to enjoy. The agency estimates that the plan for the Artemis moon base – named after Apollo’s sister, in a nod to plans to land female astronauts on the Moon – will cost $93 billion in total, including rockets, capsules and landers from 2012 to 2025.

This led NASA’s inspector general in March to rebuke Congress for its negligence in forcing cost overruns and delaying warranty contracts for the space agency’s lunar program, which has caused ongoing budget crises. at the agency and ate real science programs there. The Artemis plan includes 10 launches from the SLS, which NASA calls its “Mega Moon Rocket” and which it says will cost just $2 billion a pop, in a dispute with its inspector general. Critics for the past decade have called it the “Senate Launch System.”

“They literally ordered NASA to build it out of reusable space shuttle engines with the intention of throwing them away,” Cowing added. “Only NASA would spend billions to make amazing, reusable rocket engines and then billions more to put them on a rocket that will use them once.” Even a mobile launch tower for the rocket was over budget, having more than doubled in cost to $1 billion, and delayed by more than two years, according to a scathing NASA inspector general report released in June.

Try, try again

Delayed rocket launches, especially early test launches, are normal for new rockets, but Monday’s delay is iconic for the SLS. The engine cooling process relies on liquid hydrogen at around -423 degrees Fahrenheit being bled through the engines before launch to cool them down. On Monday, a liquid hydrogen purge line began to leak, the exact same problem that prematurely ended a final refueling test of the rocket in June. NASA went ahead with the clean launch attempt despite this leak issue. Despite development costs estimated at $23 billion, the test to send three mannequins on a 42-day trip around the moon is really a test flight, practice for one second such lunar flyby by four real astronauts hoped to launch in 2024.

The real future of NASA’s lunar plans is likely 985 miles from the first SLS launch from Kennedy Space Center, whenever that happens, in Chica Boca, Texas, where Elon Musk’s SpaceX is building its own giant rocket. larger and more powerful, called Starship, which is reusable. Reusable rockets are the future of spaceflight, with not just SpaceX, but Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origins, Russia, China and the European Space Agency planning them, along with other private companies. NASA has already chosen Starship to land the next two astronauts on the moon after they are orbited there by SLS. SpaceX hopes to have an empty Starship test landing on the moon by 2024. (Cost estimates for Starship range from $2 million to $10 million per flight, orders of magnitude lower than SLS.)

All of these reusable rockets are heirs to a path not taken by NASA in the 1990s, the Delta Clipper rocket, whose $60 million prototype demonstrated for the first time successful vertical takeoff and landing of rockets in 1995. NASA killed the program after a strut on the prototype failed. third level. SpaceX now instead makes highlight movies of its bloopers (this one’s a doozy) when something goes wrong, understanding that rapid cycles of failure and experimentation are the keys to perfecting a rocket.

SLS will likely reach space for the first time before Starship, which is aiming for a first within the next six months. But what’s important is when every rocket has a second launch, noted space writer Eric Berger of Ars Technica, with a bigger, better, and much cheaper spacecraft likely rapidly breaking in SLS. thanks to its reusability. SLS was “the political price the agency had to pay to get Congress on board with a real deep space exploration program,” he wrote last week.

Cut it close

The retirement of Republican Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama — the former chairman and ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, where checks are cut for NASA — will remove a pillar of the aid program. job for SLS. In retrospect, the rocket might just be an expensive bridge for companies to launch astronauts to the Moon on reusable rockets.

That’s unless something really went wrong with SLS in this first launch attempt, Cowing said. “They’re really whistling past the graveyard on this one to only have one test launch before putting people on a flight around the moon on the second launch,” he said. “They have no wiggle room for anything not to go well on this launch.”

Thanks to Lillian Barkley for writing this article.

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