Almost a week ago, NASA finally launched the Artemis I mission. This is the first launch of the Space Launch System (SLS). It launched an unmanned Orion capsule around the moon. While I'm excited about the prospect of us going back to the moon, I have mixed feelings on the current program.
I'm not going to lie, I love the thought of humans touching down on the lunar soil once again. I wasn't alive at the time of Apollo, but I've watched plenty of documentaries about the early days of human space exploration. I remember watching shuttle launches as a kid in awe of them. I was excited to watch the final launches and the completion of the International Space Station. I was excited to see SpaceX launch their first Falcon 9 rockets and eventually launch men up to the space station again from U.S. soil.
The pictures the Orion capsule is sending back from its mission are absolutely breathtaking.
Launching into space is expensive, there are no ifs ands or buts about it. SpaceX has been able to bring the cost of launches to Low Earth Orbit (LEO) down with its reusability, but it's still super expensive. The Falcon 9 doesn't have the lift capacity to launch outside of LOE though. The Falcon Heavy has more, but still not the level the SLS has. And later SLS models will have even more lift than the Block 1 model being used for the first 3 Artemis missions.
The SLS has a nickname of the Senate Launch System. It's got the nickname because it seems more like a jobs program than a launch system. The SLS rocket is going to cost well over $2.1 billion dollars per launch. In other words, really expensive. For reference in today's dollars, the Apollo Saturn V launches cost around $1.25b per launch, and the Space Shuttle clocked in around $1.5b per launch. It's hard to wrap your head around some of those numbers, but they're huge.
The Falcon Heavy by comparison costs anywhere from $100-150 million per launch. Quite the difference.
I'm not a rocket scientist by any means, but I have to wonder if there isn't a cheaper way to bridge the gap between the Falcon Heavy and the SLS to allow for man to walk on the moon and to potentially build a permanent base on it.
SpaceX's Starship is also around the corner promising another heavy lift rocket.
Making Sure Science isn't Missed
I'm someone who wants to keep the science part of space exploration at the forefront. I'd be concerned if we relied on SpaceX for all of our human exploration.
SpaceX is a business out to make money. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that. If they can help NASA by ferrying astronauts back and forth to the space station, launching satellites, or even getting astronauts to the moon, and make money by doing it, that's great. Good for them. I'm not knocking the profit motive at all. My concern is that profit, resource extraction and everything else will take center stage and the science will be put on the back burner.
I firmly believe that both science and the business of space can successfully coexist. It's not an either-or proposition. I think that's the one thing Artemis and the SLS have going for them. It's NASA's rocket and NASA determines what it's used for.
I just hope we have the drive as a country to ensure that the the science of space exploration continues to be alive and well.