It should be remembered that the American space agency has already spent, against all odds, $40 billion in this program which includes the rockets, called “Space Launch System” (SLS), and the Orion capsule that the astronauts will occupy. The agency has been the victim of accumulated delays (SLS, started in 2011, was originally supposed to produce its first launch before 2020) and its detractors have easily said that it should have turned to private enterprise: these last years, both SpaceX (under Elon Musk) and Blue Origin (under Jeff Bezos) have produced their own rockets, although not yet in a “version” capable of going to the Moon.
Whether private enterprise would have done better and faster will always remain hypothetical, but certainly a failure of the Artemis 1 rocket would weigh heavily on NASA’s reputation. This rocket, uninhabited, must go into lunar orbit, paving the way for Artemis 2, which will carry three astronauts in 2024, and Artemis 3, whose occupants should land on the Moon in 2025.
The first two launch attempts, on August 29 and September 3, were postponed each time because of a hydrogen leak in a fuel tank supply pipe – the second leak being larger than the first. The next attempt could be on September 27 or October 2.
Lori Garver, former NASA administrator (from 2009 to 2013), commented in the New York Times on September 3 that hydrogen was inevitably going to be a recurring problem, because of the technological choices surrounding the SLS.
The same Lori Garver told the Scientific American in August: “the program [Artemis] is weak”. She is known as a critic of NASA’s policy of having used for this return to the Moon the same type of rocket that was used for the Apollo missions 50 to 60 years ago. Not only, she says, “the space agency’s most pressing missions involve tasks like combating climate change, defending the Earth against threatening asteroids and developing transformative technologies for the 21st century.” But in addition, when the intent is to explore other worlds, the agency should at least spend some of its budget “to spur innovations that would improve the way humans get there.”
She repeated in the New Scientist in mid-September that, in his view, NASA was “returning to the moon for the wrong reasons”: “ever since the time we went to the moon, we wanted to go back”, but acting as if the only purpose was to send an astronaut to succeed the 12 previous ones. “Maybe that’s not the right way to do it. The other way around a problem is to cut costs. »
It is accepted that, in the current state of things, the costs of the SLS make it unthinkable to continue the lunar program, beyond Artemis 3, if at least it should depend only on this rocket. This is where private enterprise could play a role, by developing its own lunar rocket, as it is already developing the future moon landing module. But this requires political will, accuses Lori Garver: “the reason we are now returning to the Moon is that the construction of the SLS has created jobs for American workers, and the elected members of Congress whose those jobs are in their districts, want to keep them”.