Obsolescence and budget debauchery: the dark side of the Artemis mission

Don’t worry, next time will be good. Otherwise, it will be next. Monday, August 29, the giant Artemis rocket was supposed to take off from Cape Canaveral, but a fuel tank problem ended that first launch window. The next one is scheduled for this Saturday, September 3rd. This comeback is the case of the decade for NASA. The first symbol: fifty years shortly after the last Apollo 17 mission, the American space agency, this time with partners, returns to the Moon, with the intention of staying there and preparing the future of solar system exploration.

This Artemis 1 flight is a test. In the Orion capsule, which was supposed to house six astronauts, are dummies covered in sensors. The rocket will pass the Moon before moving away from it at 64,000 kilometers, to return to lunar orbit, before returning to Earth at the end of a forty-two-day mission.

Next year, if all goes well, the Artemis 2 mission will this time carry a crew that will test all circumlunar navigation systems. Later, at an undetermined date – 2026, perhaps – Artemis 3 will finally send astronauts to lunar soil. Before that, SpaceX will have to fulfill its part of the contract by providing the human landing system, a dedicated version of the future starship that will transport between the future mini-orbital station Lunar Gateway – also to be built, in this case by the European Space Agency (ESA) – and the south pole of the Moon, where ‘we hope to find ice . Next, NASA is betting on one manned flight to the Moon a year. this is the plan.

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Even if you are tempted to surrender to the allure of these cosmic ambitions, critical examination is necessary. The Artemis program is driven by both its super-powered rocket engines and American politics, which makes its curve a parabola towards obsolescence.

Come back. The trends that continue to this day date back to 2004, when George W. Bush decided to relaunch the exploration of the solar system with manned flights. This gives, two years later, the beginning of the Constellation program, with the Ares rockets, derived from the immense Saturn V of the Apollo program. Constellation quickly became mired in the antediluvian practices of NASA’s usual suppliers. These companies are the same as those in the military programs: Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, etc. They have the particularity of working according to the so-called principle of “cost more” – an accounting aberration resulting from extraordinary industrial lobbying – where not only are up-front costs, usually misjudged, reimbursed, but also overruns are covered – all accompanied by a guaranteed rate of profit. If we add to that the political restrictions where it is necessary to preserve jobs in key states, we end up with spectacular slippages in terms of budgets and deadlines.

In 2010, Barack Obama, angered by this albatross-like Constellation program, put an end to it. He also signs the retirement of the space shuttle, which carries out its last mission on July 21, 2011.

135 flights, 14 deaths

The space shuttle saga ends with mixed results. On the positive side, the construction of the International Space Station (ISS), arguably the most complex industrial structure ever built and which has been running like clockwork for over twenty years with crews in shifts at all times. The Space Shuttles also allowed large satellites to be put into orbit for commercial, military and scientific purposes, such as the Hubble telescope and its spectacular repair missions.

In the negative column is economic slippage: if the space shuttle was to usher in the era of reusable craft, each return to service proved ruinous; on average, each flight resulted in a renovation cost of $1.6 billion. And above all, there is safety: 135 flights, but two accidents, 14 astronauts killed. An unacceptable rate by today’s standards, where SpaceX and Arianespace rockets are approaching 100% reliability.

Prematurely, therefore, NASA found itself in early 2010 without the possibility of transporting personnel and equipment aboard the ISS. It should appeal to Russia, whose ancient rockets have the old-fashioned charm of Soviet interfaces and the sturdiness of a Lada. Meanwhile, NASA, somewhat helpless in the face of this humiliating dependence on Russian launchers, began awarding contracts to start-ups to supply the ISS. One of them is called Space Exploration Technologies Corporation, which will be better known by the abbreviation of SpaceX. The other, Orbital Sciences Corp. will be acquired by the giant Northrop Grumman, which will dilute it in its relentless bureaucracy. SpaceX charges a contract of 1.6 billion for 12 missions.

The ambition to colonize Mars

The rest is known: SpaceX succeeds almost without fail with its Falcon 9 and its Dragon capsule, which will give the United States back its independence in terms of manned launchers. Elon Musk will add a sci-fi side to it with his ambition to colonize Mars.

This is a powerful stimulus for the entire industry. Setting a goal as lofty as establishing a self-sustaining human colony on another planet, Musk must solve a series of never-before-seen problems that he tackles with disruptive solutions, both in architecture and execution. Where NASA uses the cream of aircraft manufacturers to manufacture its Artemis, Musk uses welders, some of whom specialize in building water tanks, overseen by talented engineers chosen for their ability to come up with creative solutions. All on a desolate plain in South Texas.

To understand the complexity of the issues, it is necessary to mention a few orders of magnitude. Distances First: A flight to the Moon takes three days, and even if you spend only a short time there, the round trip can be done without refueling. Nothing to do with Mars, where the voyage takes a minimum of six months – no ship can make the year’s voyage on its own reserves. In all cases, the exploration of the solar system presupposes, therefore, the implantation of an infrastructure in place. The complexity therefore increases exponentially. A base on the Moon capable of producing fuel from ice supposes the transport of 1000 tons of material. On Mars, the story is different: Elon Musk estimates that it takes a million tons to establish a small colony that is entirely self-sufficient in energy, food and rocket fuel. Again, for comparison, the International Space Station weighs 450 tons.

There is therefore a huge way to go, the first stage of which is the Moon, the ideal base for exploring the solar system. That’s the idea of ​​the Artemis program with its five or six missions.

Artemis or foreseeable obsolescence

The problem is that Artemis was obsolete even before its first flight. It is built on a non-reusable rocket, a direct descendant of those who sent men to the moon. Some of its components are also taken from the shuttle, such as the slightly modified side solid thrusters, the center tank and even the rocket’s main engines.

Recycling therefore, but of great luxury. NASA’s Inspector General’s report gives dizzying numbers. Its 73 pages are of rare cruelty in the management of the American space program. Excerpts: “NASA cannot provide a detailed estimate of the costs of the Artemis program. (…) When all relevant costs are aggregated, NASA will spend $93 billion on Artemis by 2025. We further estimate production and operating costs for each Orion/SLS system at $4.1 billion per launch.” It crosses out the principle of cost moreas well as political restrictions.

Even though NASA’s inspection report promises to do everything in its power to reduce this cost, the number remains astronomical given the evolution of the industry. Because flying a Falcon 9 rocket – certainly much smaller – costs SpaceX customers $50 million, with an internal cost of around $20 million for a refurbished launcher.

Above all, Elon Musk promises a launch cost of his starship of 10 million dollars for a capacity equivalent to that of Artemis (about 100 tons in low orbit). Even if Musk is wrong by a factor of ten, the cost of a kilogram sent into orbit will be forty times less with the starship than with Artemis…

A transfer to SpaceX?

Arguing from this baroque architecture based on an overpriced, throwaway launcher, many space players consider that Artemis will not go beyond the first three missions. The relay, they believe, will be carried out by SpaceX and the “Baby Musk” that has proliferated in its wake, adopting their methods.

In this system, the European Space Agency plays a delicate role. It manufactures one of the elements of Artemis (the “service module”, which is the technical part located under the floor of the Orion capsule) and also the future Lunar Gateway station. In exchange for this contribution, ESA will receive three astronaut seats, likely on future Artemis 4 and 5 missions – if they see the light of day, unless replaced by the rocket by then. from Musk…

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ESA’s participation will be disputed at the Agency’s Ministerial Council in November, as part of a budgetary discussion that promises to be tense: the six Artemis service modules ordered by NASA are expected to cost a total of 2.1 billion euros (650 million for that of Artemis 1 ), to which is added the cost of the lunar orbital station – in total, ESA’s contribution should exceed 3 billion euros. This means a new request for participation from 1.1 billion of the Agency’s members, at a time when Europe has many concerns. Therefore, it is essential that NASA confirm the credibility of Artemis by sending its giant rocket into space as soon as possible.


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