09 December 2020
So much of NASA’s plans to land astronauts on the Moon depends on the agency’s ability to complete development of its Space Launch System (SLS) rocket. It is, after all, the SLS that is designated to launch the nine proposed Artemis lunar missions during 2023-2029, beginning with the Artemis I unmanned mission to the Moon in 2023 and the Artemis II manned mission by 2024. Now, bear in mind that this whole idea of going back to the Moon within four years and trying to recreate the excitement of the Apollo era of the late 1960s and early 1970s has never been quite convincing to me because it has never been made clear what the point of it all is.
So I have long sensed the Artemis program would eventually be cancelled by the next incoming presidential administration, assuming, of course, President Trump were to lose this year’s election... (which, as it turns out, he did). From the start of Artemis, I viewed it as more of a political stunt by the Trump administration, with little practical or inspired visionary initiative. I think it is increasingly likely that Artemis will disappear within the next couple of years under the Biden administration, mainly because of the poor case for the program to begin with, but also because of the huge costs increases of the SLS of late.
The SLS program, which began in 2010, is several years behind schedule and by 2021 the cost of developing the rocket will reach close to $19 billion. NASA had expected final cost of the rocket to total just over $17 billion.
It seems unlikely that SLS will be ready by the end of next year, and so the costs of the program will continue to climb. I anticipate that, at some point, Congress will take a serious second look at SLS and its limited number of missions, as well as the questionable value of those missions, and decide enough is enough... particularly given the success (in carrying astronauts to the Space Station) of SpaceX and its Falcon 9/Dragon 2 launch system and the progress the company is making in its plans to launch missions to Mars.