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Damn and blast off: How not to go back to the moon

Damn and blast off: How not to go back to the moon

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Nasa wants to put people back on the moon, half a century after Apollo 11. Its Artemis moon mission is over-budget, overhyped and underpowered – it might even be the end of Nasa as we know it

Why this story?

Nasa will land the first woman and the first person of colour on the Moon by 2024. At least that’s the aim of its latest mission, Artemis, which took off in earnest at the end of last year with the launch of the Orion spacecraft.

Even though Orion initially failed to lift off – twice – the rocket’s eventual journey was covered in much of the media, and the message was overwhelmingly positive: Nasa is back in deep space.

But put aside the awe and wonder of rockets for a moment, and serious questions start to emerge. Why did it take Nasa three attempts to launch a rocket using technology that it’s known about for at least half a century? How did the Artemis project end up years late and billions over budget?

And why is Nasa sending people back to the Moon at all when SpaceX and other private companies are making renewable rockets at twice the speed and half the cost? If Artemis is the future of Nasa’s human space exploration, is it also the end of Nasa as we know it? Patricia Clarke, Producer

Transcript

“…liquid tank has been pressurised, and the pressure’s still building up. One minute 45 seconds and counting, we have a vehicle weighing 6.2 million pounds on the pad… All third stage propellants pressurised at this time as we come up on the 60-second mark on a flight to the Moon.”

Apollo 8 mission

Giles Whittell, narrating: This is December 21st, 1968. And that is the voice of Jack King at launch control, Kennedy Space Centre. Sixty seconds later Apollo 8, precursor to Apollo 11, blasted off with three men aboard on a flawless six-day trip round the dark side of the Moon. 

“We… we have liftoff…”

Apollo 8 mission

… Now get a load of this.

“This is Artemis Launch Control with an update… The hydrogen bleed was a goal of the previous wet dress rehearsal… that didn’t happen due to a hydrogen leak.”

Artemis I launch control

Giles, narrating: That was launch control for Artemis 1, the biggest. Rocket. Ever. I was going to say ever launched, but it failed to get off the ground because of that hydrogen leak. That was August 29th, 2022. 54 years after Apollo 8.  

Artemis is the biggest rocket ever built. Nasa says it’ll take astronauts back to the Moon and beyond. But a few weeks later it failed again.

“This is Artemis Launch Control. Launch Director Charlie Blackwell Thompson just called a scrub for the launch attempt today, the second launch attempt.”

Artemis I launch control

Giles Whittell, narrating: Same problem. A problem that hadn’t been a problem half a century earlier.

For some people it was all rather inevitable.

Lori Garver: I also felt pretty strongly it probably wouldn’t launch, and did not make the trip.

For others it was… embarrassing.

Robert Zubrin: It is somewhat amazing. Nasa has been dealing with hydrogen propellant since 1962… It was used on every shuttle flight.

Giles Whittell, narrating: We do need to be fair here. Rockets have glitches. And Artemis did eventually blast off a couple of weeks ago.

“And here we go… We rise together, back to the Moon and beyond!”

Artemis I launch control

Giles Whittell, narrating: But… really?

Nasa tries to talk about Artemis in the same uplifting language it used about the Apollo programme. Or similar language, updated for half a century later. 

“With the Earth in the background and the Moon as our destination, Artemis generation, we are going!”

Artemis I post-launch commentary

Giles Whittell, narrating: Going to do “awesome geology”, test a whole new generation of habitats, space suits, lunar rovers.

Going to live there! (That’s what the habitats are for.)

“We are a nation of explorers…”

Gene Kranz interview

Giles Whittell, narrating: This is Gene Kranz, legend of Apollo 13, the one in the fancy waistcoats who told Mission Control that Nasa had never lost a man in space and sure as hell wasn’t going to lose one on his watch. 

“During Apollo we were on national TV literally every day because we were doing something visible that Americans could see and they could feel and say, ‘look what we are doing’. And I believe Artemis is going to come up and say, ‘look what we are capable of and what we are doing now’.”

Gene Kranz interview

Giles Whittell, narrating: Thanks Gene, and I say that as a fan. But you and I know how carefully you chose your words there. Because you’re right. Artemis shows what Nasa is capable of, what it’s doing now, and it’s a mess.

I’m Giles Whittell and this is Damn and Blast Off – How Not To Go Back To the Moon – a Slow Newscast from Tortoise.

Artemis cannot actually get to the Moon, because the spacecraft it carries in its nose can’t get down there or back up. It doesn’t have the power. Artemis cannot claim to have explored new frontiers because its mission is basically a retread of Apollo 8’s. And it can’t test how the whole system works with humans aboard because there aren’t any.

Each Artemis launch costs $4 billion. None of them re-use any of their components, and none will put people on the Moon without the help of SpaceX – that scrappy startup run by the friendly new owner of Twitter, Elon Musk. 

He does re-use his components so he can offer launches at $90 million a throw – less than a 40th the cost of an Artemis launch. 

“2,1,0 ignition… and liftoff! [cheers] That was as smooth as I’ve seen it… we had phenomenal shots all the way through the landing burn. You heard the sonic booms, this booster has landed for the eighth time…”

SpaceX launch

Giles Whittell, narrating: Oh, and Musk’s next rocket, currently being built in Texas, is designed to be entirely reusable and get to the Moon and Mars all by itself. 

So here’s what I want to know: is Nasa pointlessly sending people to the Moon? With tech that isn’t up to the job? Even though, more than half a century after the original Moon landings, it ought to have nothing to prove?

Here’s a preliminary answer: Artemis is the future of Nasa’s human space exploration… and it’s also the end of Nasa as we know it.

***

Giles Whittell, narrating: To understand how Nasa got itself into the position of spending $4 billion of American taxpayers’ money for every launch of a rocket that can’t really go anywhere, you need to meet Lori Garver.

Lori Garver: I have recently released a memoir titled Escaping Gravity and I’m a former deputy administrator of Nasa.

Giles Whittell, narrating: Before her retirement she was the most senior female official in Nasa’s history. It was otherwise a pretty male world. As were the routes to its coveted jobs. 

Lori Garver: I did not grow up wanting to be an astronaut or even feeling like I had a future career at Nasa. The boys the same age often did, but I was from Michigan; I didn’t have any family members who were engineers; I was discouraged as a woman – girl – in high school from even taking all of the science and math that I wanted to. I did have an aptitude for it, but ended up in a political science and economics undergraduate and graduate school.

Giles Whittell, narrating: On the way there she’d ignored her high school teachers and taken all the maths courses she could.

Lori Garver: …before my senior year. And senior year, when I came back that fall, I had been the only girl who had done that, but there had been five boys. And they had all been contacted over the summer by the school and offered to take calculus at the nearby university. So when my parents said, ‘well, why wasn’t Lori asked to do this?’, they were just very much open by saying, ‘we didn’t know why a girl would wanna take calculus’.

Giles Whittell, narrating: She says she doesn’t regret being steered towards the social sciences. It didn’t prevent her being awed by space. Didn’t stop her seeing the impact of the moment when, half-way through Apollo 8, Bill Anders grabbed a Hasselblad camera and took the Earthrise picture that launched the modern environmental movement.

“Oh my god. Look at that picture. The earth coming up. Wow! Isn’t that pretty. Hey, don’t take that, it’s not scheduled.”

Apollo 8

Giles Whittell, narrating: It didn’t stop her wanting to join Nasa. But it did mean she joined as an administrator, not an engineer, not obsessed with the machines Nasa could build but with what it could do… for people.

And those turned out to be very different things. 

As that became clear, she put up with a lot.

Lori Garver: In the 1980s going into the aerospace industry as a woman in her twenties, just, you know, it was like most other things. If you’re in a male dominated profession and there’s mainly men around, you’re just gonna be asked to get coffee, you’re gonna be presumed to be the junior person in the room, you’re going to get comments about your looks…

Giles Whittell, narrating: And worse.

Lori Garver: Things like my boss saying, ‘you’re gonna come in for your birthday spanking’. Being at a hotel in Moscow with an aerospace contractor who was overserved and barged into my hotel room...

Giles Whittell, narrating: She fought him off. Despite the frat house culture – that’s her description – she stayed in love with space, and after a spell outside Nasa in reality TV, she came back to Nasa as deputy administrator under President Obama. At a moment when Nasa was at a crossroads.

Lori Garver: Yes I remember it well. It was April 15th 2010. 

Giles Whittell, narrating: Obama had been in the White House a little under a year. He knew his presidential history. Knew the galvanising power of a clear, ambitious goal.

“I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth…”

Kennedy’s 1961 space exploration speech

Giles Whittell, narrating: He wanted to give Nasa presidential leadership as Eisenhower and Kennedy had before.

But where to? The Moon and Mars? At colossal expense with no clear scientific rationale? Just for old times’ sake?

That’s what a lot of people in Congress wanted, because it meant money for their constituents. It’s what the astronauts wanted too. They all wanted to be like Neil Armstrong. And it turns out one of them was in charge of Nasa – Charles Bolden, ex-fighter pilot, the agency’s first black astronaut, all-round national hero and a back-to-the-Moon guy to his fingertips.

Obama – not so much. He liked the idea that Nasa should be doing new things, things that no one else could do or had even tried. 

This was Lori Garver’s view, too. In fact, she had been  his chief space advisor during his 2008 presidential campaign. His thinking on space was essentially her thinking on space.

So… April 2010, this is where things stood:

In Nasa’s hallowed halls in Houston, astronaut types who want to recreate as closely as possible the glory that was Apollo. 

In Washington, at one end of Pennsylvania Avenue in the Capitol, congressional types who want jobs and contracts for their constituents.

And at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue in the White House, progressive policy types who want what they think’s best for America, and dare we say it for humanity. They say leave old-fashioned rocketry – and the ticker-tape parades – to the private sector. Focus on new frontiers, deep space, remote sensing, climate change… and asteroids.

Lori Garver: The President had released his budget for the country and Nasa a couple of months earlier. The congressional reaction had been, ‘no, we’re not going to do things that way’. And in an attempt to help convince them that this was a good path for the agency, he came to the Kennedy Space Center.

Giles Whittell, narrating: By that time Nasa had already started building the gigantic Artemis package, and the Orion space capsule was a key part of it. 

Lori Garver: We gave a bit of a consolation to the status quo people: said we would keep the capsule Orion in a streamlined mode, and said we would set a destination. They had been asking us, ‘where is the next place astronauts will go?’ And so the President at that time said, ‘an asteroid’. It was the only achievable goal within the budget and timeframe allowed. He gave a marvellous speech, I thought, and I think the audience, as he was a wonderful speaker, was enthused at the time.

And he did come right over to me afterwards. The administrator of Nasa was on stage with him, so I was this senior person he’s looking out [to] and he shook my hand and said, ‘do you think that will help?And I said to him immediately what came to mind, which was, ‘if it doesn’t, nothing will’.

Giles Whittell, narrating: And nothing did.

Garver went to Houston and tried selling the Obama plan to the astronauts.

Lori Garver: You know, astronauts are not used to having people, even in their management chain on up, disagree with them. And so I’m talking to them about, for instance, the President had said the asteroid goal would be the next goal. And they just… they literally sat in front of me with their arms folded and said, ‘we don’t wanna go to an asteroid. We don’t care about that goal. We wanna go to the Moon.’ Or, ‘we wanna go to Mars’. They always wanna go to Moon or Mars. And the animosity was toward myself and the President. And I said, ‘You know, it’s not all about us. It’s not about you or me. These are taxpayer dollars and these goals should be broader.’ But it isn’t like they were listening.

Giles Whittell, narrating: Behind the scenes, the administrator Charlie Bolden – Lori’s boss – had been working with Congress, against the President, on what he called Plan B. He wasn’t interested in asteroids or unmanned probes, or science, really. He wanted a straight rerun of the Apollo programme, or the closest thing he could get to it.

And so in open defiance of the President, Plan B became Plan A: the Space Launch System. It’s a huge rocket and two strap-on boosters to remind the public of the good old days. 

The rocket looked like the mighty Saturn V that launched Armstrong to the moon. The boosters recalled the Space Shuttle. And the whole thing was called Artemis because Artemis was Apollo’s twin. 

One of Garver’s earlier bosses had called the Space Launch System – SLS for short – a “giant self-licking ice-cream”. A thing that existed… for itself. For the gratification of its own people. Lori Garver herself calls it an abomination.

Eric Berger: So you really have to go back to the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster when that vehicle broke up over Texas.

Giles Whittell, narrating: Eric Berger is a space expert and author of a book on Elon Musk. If you want to understand how the giant self-licking ice cream really works, he says, you have to go back nearly 20 years.

Eric Berger: Columbia was coming back to Earth in early February of 2003, and as it was coming into land over Florida it basically broke into pieces that fell back to the ground. And so that was a very wrenching moment for this space flight community, especially here in Houston.

 I live near Johnson’s Space Center, and so a lot of the employees spent a week or so going up to East Texas and picking up pieces of the vehicle that had broken apart, and in which seven people died.

Giles Whittell, narrating: That was in 2003. And the public’s attention was firmly back on Nasa. 

Eric Berger: That spurred a real big rethink on what Nasa’s policy should be. And ultimately, President George W Bush at the time said, ‘we’re gonna go back to the Moon’.

Giles Whittell, narrating: The question was, what in? And the answer was dictated mainly by a few big companies.

Eric Berger: The problem was that the Space Shuttle vehicle was retiring, and Nasa had facilities in Louisiana, Alabama, Florida, Texas, and California, that were all major contributors to the Space Shuttle programme. So there’s lots of jobs in those states, lots of influential contractors. And if you look at who got what with the Space Launch System and Orion – which are the key components of the Artemis space programme – those map almost one-to-one in terms of contractors getting the same business.

So like the SLS rocket uses the same engines as the Space Shuttle programme, so Aerojet was taken care of. The external fuel tank is the same diameter as the fuel tank on the SLS rocket, which is manufactured at Michoud in Alabama. Boeing, you know, kept its work going with the core stage. Lockheed Martin got work with Orion. Northrop Grumman is building solid rocket boosters that were built for the shuttle now for the SLS rocket. So it was really a precise design from lawmakers to Nasa to, as I say, map those contractors one to one to keep them whole going forward.

Lori Garver: And the abomination is really in the fact that we have now spent over $50 billion and 12 year – more if you include Orion, which started in 2006 – doing something that the private sector has done on their own. You know Nasa last launched its own vehicle 11 years ago.

And so this team is trying to come together and do this, but everyone else who’s launching now is a private company, United Launch Alliance, SpaceX… Nasa hasn’t launched their own things in 11 years, and I understand that if you’re a rocket scientist, you wanna build rockets. Well, Nasa’s about much more than the rocket and always has been.

Giles Whittell, narrating: The trouble is, Lori Garver didn’t win that argument, and that bothers her.

Lori Garver: I have constantly questioned, ‘how could I have managed that transition better? How could I have conveyed the goals in a way that would’ve been more easily accepted by these people?

Giles Whittell, narrating: Lori Garver left Nasa in 2013. Charlie Bolden stayed on until 2017 and sold Artemis to Donald Trump.

The rest, in a sense, is history. 

Against the advice of Garver and Obama, Nasa built Artemis. Last November, at long last, it took off, launching Orion into orbit round the moon. As it began its journey home the current Nasa chief, Bill Nelson, eased into full triumphalist mode.

“Not only are we going farther and coming home faster, but Artemis is paving the way to live and work in deep space in a hostile environment…”

Bill Nelson

Giles Whittell, narrating: By that time the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg had invited Howard Hu, the Orion programme manager, onto her Sunday show.

“We are going back to the Moon. We are working towards a sustainable programme, and this is the vehicle that will carry the people that will land us back on the Moon again…”

Howard Hu on Sunday with Laura Kuenssberg

Giles Whittell, narrating: Except that none of this is really true. At best it’s a verbal sleight of hand. Nothing about Artemis is sustainable.  No part of it actually gets to the Moon. It’s years late, billions over budget, with no clear idea what it’s for now, because it can’t do what it was originally meant to do nearly twenty years ago. To see why, I hope you’ll allow a little rudimentary rocket science.

***

Robert Zubrin: Hi, I’m an astronautical engineer. I was doing, in the late 80s, preliminary design of interplanetary missions, including human missions to the Moon and Mars.

Giles Whittell, narrating: Meet Robert Zubrin, an astronautical engineer who used to work for Martin Marietta, a big Nasa contractor, in the 1980s.

Robert Zubrin: SLS cannot deliver the Orion capsule to low lunar orbit with enough propellant to come home, let alone along with a lunar excursion module. So instead they say, ‘well, we’ll deliver it to high lunar orbit’, which is where they’re putting this space station known as a deep space gateway. I call it the lunar toll booth [hard to hear].

Giles Whittell, narrating: That’s the lunar toll booth. Imagine a mini International Space Station, bolted together 200,000 miles from Earth, circling round the Moon. This is integral to the Artemis programme for technical reasons that we’ll get to. But it didn’t have to be this way.

Robert Zubrin: Nasa during Apollo had a purpose-driven human space flight programme. Purpose was not scientific, but it was sure purpose: geo-strategic purpose, to astonish the world with what free people could do. And thus it committed – Kennedy committed us to get to the Moon before the decade was out, which is to say within eight years of his speech in 1961. And we did exactly that.

Giles Whittell, narrating: With, it must be said, a remarkable piece of hardware.

Robert Zubrin: During Apollo, we designed the lander and the capsule and the booster all together. It was a complete, coherent set. Okay? This programme is completely incoherent. The capsule has been designed separately from the booster, and there is no lander. So it’s not a programme.

Giles Whittell, narrating: How did it come to this? Zubrin’s job title nowadays is president of the Mars Society. He wants to go to Mars and as it happens his plan to get there has been adopted pretty much in its entirety by Elon Musk. But he looks back as well as forwards. He looks back fondly, reverently even, on Apollo and says Nasa’s present Artemis funk is partly about attitude. About what Nasa’s people bring to work nowadays in terms of passion.

Robert Zubrin: Look, I have friends in Houston and they tell me they drive past JSC on Saturday and the parking lot’s empty.

Giles Whittell, narrating: That’s the Johnson Space Center, mission control.

Robert Zubrin: Now, that was not the case during Apollo. The parking lot was never empty because the place was a busy beehive. They were going full bore. 

Giles Whittell, narrating: So now we have a space agency treating space exploration like a 9-to-5 and getting things wrong. Forgetting how to fill fuel tanks with liquid hydrogen, and – and this is where we get to the technical stuff – forgetting other things too. Like how to build an engine.

The rocket on which the Artemis is based was conceived 34 years ago, when Zubrin had a ringside seat at Martin Marietta. It was designed, he says, as follows.

Robert Zubrin: It would have three or four space shuttle main engines at the bottom of the external tank, which contains the hydrogen and oxygen, to have the two solid strap-ons. And then on top of that, it would have an upper stage and you wanted to have, for various technical reasons, an upper stage with about 250,000 pounds of thrust or more on that.

Giles Whittell, narrating: Now 250,000 pounds was, give or take, the thrust of the legendary J2 engine used on the Saturn V rocket that lifted all the Apollo missions into orbit round the Earth.

Robert Zubrin: So we specified the upper stage, use a J2. It’s an engine that we used during Apollo. The J2 was actually not in production anymore by the late eighties, but we said, okay, just, you know, you’ve got the blueprints, rebuild it, let’s do it.

And Nasa actually proved unable to re-engineer an engine that had been initially designed – it was advanced technology in the sixties, but it was proven, it was used on many flights, every Saturn five used six of them, five on the second stage and one on the third stage – and they couldn’t do it.

Giles Whittell, narrating: It’s worth pausing here: when Nasa started building a big new rocket to replace the shuttle, it tried to rebuild the engine used on the original moon rockets, and it couldn’t remember how. These were complicated pieces of  equipment – you can see how complicated at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington and the Science Museum in London. But still. To unlearn something so substantial so quickly is quite some feat.

Anyway, instead, Nasa used a smaller engine.

Robert Zubrin: They took another old engine, but one which is still in production, the RL10. Now RL10 is only about 16,000 pounds of thrust. It’s a much smaller engine than a J2… fine little engine.

Giles Whittell, narrating: Are you following? I’m sure you’re way ahead of me.

The challenge is to get enough thrust in the upper stage, the second stage, of the main Artemis rocket to enable it to deliver its payload, which is the Orion spacecraft containing Nasa’s next moon-bound astronaut crew, into orbit round the Moon.

Robert Zubrin: And they put five of ’em on there.

Giles Whittell, narrating: That’s five RL 10s, each with 15,000 pounds of thrust. 

Robert Zubrin: So it has 90,000 pounds of thrust in its upper stage, and that is not enough.

Giles Whittell, narrating: Not enough to get down to and back from low lunar orbit – which is where the Apollo missions paused for breath and transferred their astronauts into their lunar modules. Not even close. In fact with these five RL 10 engines The upper stage of the main Artemis rocket is three times the weight of the upper stage of the Saturn V, with one third the power.

Robert Zubrin: Imagine two couples that wanna have a dream house, okay? And the first couple, they sit down, they discuss it informally, come up with general vision of what they’re looking for. Then they bring in their architect and they sit down together and he draws things, sketches out, until he finally comes up with the plan they want. And then they call into construction firm. They say, ‘here’s the plan. Build this’. Okay? That’s Apollo.

Compare that to Couple B, which wants to have a dream house, but the way they proceed is they just drive around to garage sales every weekend and they buy things that strike their fancy. So maybe a spiral staircase, some aluminium siding, a fountain with a statue of Napoleon in the middle… and they accumulate all this junk and put it in the backyard. And then one day the in-laws come for a visit. And, you know, father-in-law sees all this junk piled up in their backyard. And he says, ‘why do you have all this junk in your backyard?’ And I say, ‘oh, well this is parts for our dream house’. And he looks at this bizarre collection of the stuff and says, show me the plan for this house. So they say, ‘oh, we’ll do that.

And so they call in an architect and they say, ‘look, we need you to design a house, and it has to include all of these parts’. That’s Artemis.

Giles Whittell, narrating: Zubrin’s preferred metaphor for the Artemis programme is, to put it politely, a garage sale: Which is why the solution Nasa has had to adopt is to pause the whole mission in high lunar orbit, phone SpaceX and ask for help.

***

3, 2, 1… ignition… we have liftoff [rocket sound].
It is going! Yes! Yes! Yes! There’s a new flight record right there my friends.’”

SpaceX launch

Giles Whittell, narrating: Those are some of the sounds of Boca Chica. This town used to be a bird watcher’s paradise on the Gulf of Mexico. Not any more. It’s the place where SpaceX is reinventing space flight. Eric Berger’s been there. 

Eric Berger: So SpaceX does not do anything timidly, and they have massively transformed this sleepy area down by the Rio Grande River – so the southern end of Texas, just north of Mexico – and built a Starship facility, a modern day spaceport, out of nothing on these flatlands. 

Giles Whittell, narrating: 24 hours a day, SpaceX workers at Boca Chica are bending metal, testing rocket engines and running test launches of those Starships that Eric Berger mentioned. 

Like a lot of what Elon Musk does they’re meant to evoke science fiction… but there’s nothing fictional about them. They’re stainless steel, they’re very big, very heavy and unlike anything Nasa has ever built. Where Nasa’s adrift – or so its critics say – SpaceX knows exactly what it’s doing. These are the spacecraft on which it will take humanity to Mars.

Eric Berger: So if people can recall the Apollo rocket – so the Saturn V rocket that took humans to the Moon in the 1960s and the 1970s – this huge white and black vehicle taking off with these thunders of smoke and fire and kicking up dust. And if you look at the top of that vehicle, there was the Apollo capsule. Right? And that’s where the three astronauts sat during launch. And they went up and around the Moon and came back. And then just that little, you know, 1% or less than 1% of the vehicle came back, splashed down the Pacific Ocean, and then they put the Apollo capsule in the museums. Okay? Everything was expended, okay? Nothing was reused.

What SpaceX is trying to do is build a rocket larger and more powerful than the Saturn V launch vehicle that is entirely reusable. So that is: the first stage launches, it goes up, it boosts the second stage onto orbit. Then that first stage comes back in land, perhaps at the launch site, perhaps somewhere else, and then Starship goes up into orbit, flies around, and then eventually comes back and lands, and then it’s stacked by the launch tower back on top of the booster is designed to fly again in a week or even less.

Giles Whittell, narrating: Say what you like about Elon Musk, but no one is betting against his Starship. Nasa certainly isn’t. 

The pattern with his smaller rockets is he keeps test-launching them till they work every time. And that means going up… and coming down. It’s cool stuff.

Eric Berger: I will just tell you that, for me, the most amazing thing I’ve seen in my lifetime, or the moment that I felt like I was actually living in the future, was when they landed on a boat for the first time in April 2016. That just looked like… you saw a rocket fall outta the sky, slow down, hover, and then sit down on a small automated drone ship in the middle of the ocean. I mean, come on.

Giles Whittell, narrating: And now, before SpaceX goes to Mars, Nasa is depending on its Starship to get its astronauts back to the moon. The plan is for a Starship to rendez-vous in lunar orbit with Orion – the spacecraft launched by Artemis – at that lunar toll booth Robert Zubrin talked about. And give its crew a ride down to the moon and back, because Orion can’t. 

You might ask why SpaceX doesn’t just take Nasa’s astronauts all the way from Earth. Well, the answer is that having spent so much time and money on the Artemis programme, Nasa has to do something with it. But still…

Eric Berger: …you’re gonna have this really weird scene of astronauts getting out of this tiny Orion spacecraft and climbing into this massive Starship vehicle going down on the Moon and coming back up.***

Giles Whittell, narrating: So this is a story that goes like this.

Artemis is cruising back from lunar orbit as we record this.

It would be churlish to deny this is some sort of accomplishment.

But it’s taken 16 years and at least $20 billion…

To build a salad of old rocket parts…

To do something done before, half a century ago…

And in fact not to do it…

Because Orion is overweight and underpowered…

Leaving Nasa reliant on SpaceX…

Which can already launch cargoes to Earth orbit for a fraction of the price of Nasa…

Because it reuses its rockets…

And Nasa doesn’t…

And in fact has never even tried. (The Space Shuttle, remember, was a glider. Its boosters, like the Apollo boosters, all ended up in the ocean.)

And no one seems to care…

In Congress…

Or most of the media…

Where Nasa’s line that it’s going back to what it’s good at is swallowed uncritically even though the reverse is true.

It’s pretending to go back to what it used to be good at. 

And so, in a way, Nasa has ended up doing what Lori Garver recommended all along – leaving key elements of America’s return to human space exploration to the commercial sector.

But it’s only doing that having tried everything else first at vast public expense. Congress is happy. The contractors are happy. The fast fashionistas who’ve decided they like Nasa’s retro logos, they seem pretty happy too. But the space nerds aren’t. Well, I guess that’s democracy for you.

There are two consolations. America, broadly defined, is still likely to get to Mars before China and Russia… thanks mainly to Elon Musk. 

And Nasa’s heroes, its rocket jocks, are capable – some of them, anyway – of admitting they were wrong. Admitting that Nasa should have outsourced its astronauts-in-spacesuits business years ago.

Lori Garver: Well, lots of them have changed their tune publicly. Many of them have gone on to work for these companies, and a handful have said that my reasoning at the time was instrumental to them really being on this path. So yeah, it’s been super rewarding. And there’s a lot of older engineers who’ve come up to me and just… I had this one older gentleman give me a hug at an event not too long ago and say, ‘I just thought you were so wrong, and I was the one who was wrong!’ I mean, it happens.

Giles Whittell, narrating: Did she go to the launch of Artemis?

Lori Garver: I was invited by Nasa to attend the launches at their VIP viewing site, where I’ve watched so many launches before. And so that was, I think, very generous of them. And I declined, which I think was also generous of me, that I’m not the person they need to be seeing when they’re celebrating or when they hope to be celebrating.

Giles Whittell, narrating: They’re celebrating how not to go back to the Moon. Everything about Artemis is half-baked, mix and match, slow, uncertain and massively expensive. SpaceX’s Starship is all in, purpose built, fast, confident and – by space standards – very cheap.

Not long from now it’ll pass its tests and Elon Musk will be sending out invitations to the biggest space launch since Neil Armstrong’s in 1969. Lori Garver should be on the list. If she’s smart, she’ll accept.

This story was reported by me, Giles Whittell, and produced by Patricia Clarke. The sound design was by Tom Kinsella. The editor was Basia Cummings.

How we got here

When Lori Garver was invited to the launch of Orion at Nasa’s private viewing deck, she politely declined. The former deputy administrator of Nasa fought against the project for years: she wanted the agency to leave human space exploration to the private sector, and to focus on the public good instead. She didn’t win that fight back in 2011, but she may feel vindicated now.

Our journey below the surface of Nasa began with an interview with Garver about her time as the most senior female official in Nasa’s history, her fight against Artemis, and what the Moon mission means for the future of Nasa. We also spoke to Eric Berger, who has written a book on Elon Musk, and aerospace engineer Robert Zubrin. Patricia Clarke, Producer


Past reporting

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