From Apollo to Artemis and Beyond
I consider human curiosity and quest for knowledge to be the main element that propels space exploration. We want to know what lies beyond the limits of our planet, beyond the limits of our solar system, beyond the limits of our galaxy, and to discover the mysteries of the Universe. We want to discover worlds similar to ours, and to understand where we come from and where we are going to, what cosmic events and what dangers await us in the near, distant and very distant future. Where can we start, besides just the observation of the sky? From the closest celestial bodies to our Earth, and the closest one is the Moon.
A brief history
Going over the multitude of robotic lunar exploration programs, very important for the preparation of manned flights, the American Apollo program was built to use aerospace technology as a symbol of national prestige, pledging to make the US the first in the world to land humans on the Moon and return them safely to Earth. As President Kennedy said in 1961, “Now it is time to take longer strides – time for a great new American enterprise –, time for this nation to take a clearly leading role in space achievement, which in many ways may hold the key to our future on Earth. ... 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. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important in the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish”. The political argument, through the national prestige in competition with the USSR, ensured the supply of funds for the program far beyond those initially foreseen.
The USSR started its own manned Moon program in early 1960s. Many disagreements and design problems contributed to the eventual cancellation of the N1 super-heavy launcher and the lunar mission as a whole.
Through the success of the Apollo program, NASA produced significant progress in the field of rockets and aeronautics, as well as in the field of civil, mechanical and electrical engineering. Special developments in the field of lasers came about as applications of achievements from the Apollo program and the partnership between NASA and industry led to the commercialization of many technologies used in the program.
The goals pursued by the Apollo program were more than just the Americans’ descent to the Moon and their safe return to Earth. These were also to establish technologies necessary for other US national interests regarding outer space; to achieve the superiority of the US in the cosmic field; to conduct a scientific program of exploration of the Moon; to develop human capacities to work in the lunar environment.
Major investments in research and development for the Apollo Program stimulated many technological fields over time: the design of the on-board computer used in the command and lunar module, along with the systems used in the Minuteman rockets formed the basis of the integrated circuits; the fuel cells developed for this program were the first practical fuel cells; computer-controlled machines were used for the first time in the manufacture of the structural components of the Apollo spaceships. Through the success of the Apollo program, NASA produced significant progress in the field of rockets and aeronautics, as well as in the field of civil, mechanical and electrical engineering. Special developments in the field of lasers came about as applications of achievements from the Apollo program and the partnership between NASA and industry led to the commercialization of many technologies used in the program.
The landing of humans on the Moon would not have been possible without the design and construction of an extraordinary rocket, the Saturn V, under the guidance of a visionary engineer and manager, with a vast scientific, technological and experimental experience accumulated since the period of the Second World War, the German imported by the US, Wernher von Braun, with his team of specialists. Because in the construction of this rocket, the purely technical, engineering, technological, functional aspects were considered a priority, making no compromises from this point of view, the rocket worked flawlessly throughout the entire Apollo and Skylab programs, not missing a single launch out of a total of 13. The main contractors for the Saturn V rocket were Boeing North American Aviation, Douglas Aircraft Company, and IBM.
However, space programs have a limited, albeit impressive, budget. After the main political goal of the Apollo program was achieved, it was interrupted before its completion, and the funds were allocated to new programs, considered priorities, such as the space shuttle and the International Space Station.
The next generation
But 50 years after the conclusion of the last piloted flight to the Moon as part of the Apollo program, its twin sister, Artemis, representing the new American program for exploration and exploitation of the Moon, is trying through the Artemis 1 mission, with many impediments, to take-off to our planet’s natural satellite, the Moon, and inaugurate a new era in piloted flights to other celestial bodies.
As stated by NASA, the reasons for making this the next step include: fulfilling a compelling human need to explore; gaining a foothold on the Moon to prepare for journeys to other worlds; easing the world’s energy problems; protecting the planet from disasters; creating Moon-based commercial enterprises that will improve life on Earth, conducting scientific research; inspiring young people toward higher education, and utilizing space resources to help spread prosperity throughout the world.
Scientists and space planners have long acknowledged that extended human residence on the Moon would be greatly aided by the use of local resources. This would avoid the high cost of lifting payloads against Earth’s strong gravity.
The program’s long-term goal is to establish a permanent base camp on the Moon and facilitate human missions to Mars. To accomplish all tasks of the program, NASA has set up the Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program, contracting support missions to commercial providers.
The first category of lunar resource are materials that can be used to support the mission, also known as In-Situ-Resource Utilization (ISRU).
The second category of lunar resources, besides water and solar energy, is represented by highly valuable minerals and compounds that are so expensive on Earth that it may be is economically viable to mine them on the Moon and take them back home or utilize them for orbital industry in service to Earth. Among the most abundant are oxygen, iron and silicon. The atomic oxygen content of the regolith is estimated at 45% by weight. Helium-3 is rare on Earth, but much more abundant on the lunar surface and could potentially be cheaper to mine from the Moon. Helium-3 is a very attractive fuel for future nuclear fusion reactors.
The third category of resource is not quite as tangible and comes from utilizing the Moon’s location and physical properties.
The major components of the Artemis program are the Space Launch System (SLS), Orion spacecraft, Lunar Gateway space station and the commercial Human Landing Systems, including Starship Human Landing System designed and built by SpaceX under contract to NASA as a critical element of NASA’s Artemis program to land a crew on the Moon by 2025. The program’s long-term goal is to establish a permanent base camp on the Moon and facilitate human missions to Mars. To accomplish all tasks of the program, NASA has set up the Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program, contracting support missions to commercial providers that include robotic landers, delivery of Gateway modules, Gateway logistics, delivery of the Human Landing Systems, and delivery of elements of the Moon base. Additional CLPS missions are planned throughout the Artemis program to deliver payloads to the Moon base. These include habitat modules and rovers in support of piloted missions.
The international component in the implementation of the Artemis program is very important, NASA being associated in this program with three partner agencies: the European Space Agency (ESA), the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA). To extend the international cooperation, the Artemis Accords are proposed as bilateral agreements between the United States government and other world governments participating in the Artemis Program. Drafted by NASA and the US Department of State, the Accords establish a framework for cooperation in the civil exploration and peaceful use of the Moon, Mars, and other astronomical objects, explicitly grounded in the United Nations Outer Space Treaty of 1967, and other UN-brokered conventions constituting space law. As of September 2022, 22 countries have signed the Accords, including Romania.
Apollo 11 Command Module Columbia (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
The workhorse of the program
The Artemis program is organized around a series of Space Launch System missions. The Space Launch System (SLS) is an American super heavy-lift expendable launch vehicle under development by NASA since 2011. These space missions will increase in complexity and are scheduled to occur at intervals of a year or more. Each SLS mission centers on the launch of a SLS booster carrying an Orion spacecraft.
Orion’s first launch, and the first use of SLS, was originally set in 2016, but was postponed many times due to technical reasons.
I made a trip to Kennedy Space Center as one of the ESA guests invited by NASA to witness the launch scheduled for August 29, 2022, as the Artemis 1 mission with robots and mannequins aboard. Due to a hydrogen leak at one of the core engines of SLS, the launch was scrubbed 40 minutes before the go time. Same thing happened on September 3, when the next attempt was scheduled, and it was scrubbed 2 hours and 53 minutes before the go time.
According to plan, the piloted Artemis 2 launch will take place in 2024, the Artemis 3 piloted lunar landing in 2025, the Artemis 4 docking with the Lunar Gateway in 2027, and future yearly landings on the Moon thereafter.
SLS is manufactured by Aerojet Rocketdyne, Northrop Grumman, Boeing, and United Launch Alliance, which is a joint venture between Lockheed Martin Space and Boeing Defense, Space & Security, the lead contractor being Boeing.
The SLS is a Space Shuttle-derived launch vehicle. Its core stage is structurally and visually similar to the Space Shuttle external tank. Each SLS launch reuses and expends four of the pre-flown RS-25D engines that were de-mounted from the Space shuttles. SLS also uses a pair of solid rocket boosters derived from the Space Shuttle Solid Rocket Booster.
Some observers note that the program’s cost and timeline are likely to be overrun and delayed, due to NASA’s inadequate management of contractors.
Problems on the horizon
As it is known, the Space Shuttle had a lot of technical problems, leading to two disasters. Due to the complexity of the RS-25 engines, following each flight they required removal for thorough inspection and meticulous maintenance. The use of liquid hydrogen also caused problems. It looks like the use for SLS of same components as for the Space Shuttle transferred also some deficiencies to the new system. The hydrogen leak causing the scrubbing of several launches of SLS looks like a déjà vu problem.
Some observers note that the program’s cost and timeline are likely to be overrun and delayed, due to NASA’s inadequate management of contractors.
In 2012, shortly after SLS was announced, NASA officials estimated that each mission would cost about $500 million – with the rocket targeting a 2017 debut.
Following his report from November 15, 2021, the NASA Inspector General during a meeting of the House Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics said: “We found that the first four Artemis missions will each cost $4.1 billion per launch, a price tag that strikes us as unsustainable”.
There are other costs, too. The Inspector General said the $4.1 billion estimate is only for production costs and ground operations, “and does not include development costs required to get the Artemis program to this point in time”. The Inspector General also stated: “It’s a challenging development [process], of course, but we did see very poor contractor performance on Boeing’s part – poor planning and poor execution”, he said. “We saw that the cost-plus contracts that NASA had been using to develop that combined SLS and Orion system works to the contractors’ rather than NASA’s advantage, and from NASA’s part we saw poor project management and contract oversight”.
Artemis 1, still waiting for the launch (Source: author’s Facebook page)
Different corporate models
A few more words about Boeing, as the lead contractor foe SLS. On September 16, 2014, after several rounds of competitive development contracts within the Commercial Crew Program starting in 2010, NASA chose Boeing and SpaceX as the two companies to be funded to develop systems to transport US government crews to and from the International Space Station. Boeing won a $4.2 billion contract to complete and certify its Starliner by 2017, while SpaceX won a $2.6 billion contract to complete and certify their crewed Dragon spacecraft.
After several failures and delays, with an additional amount totaling $595 million since 2019, Boeing succeeded on May 19, 2022, to launch successfully and dock to the ISS in an unmanned flight the Starliner spacecraft.
With regard to SpaceX, on May 25, 2012, a cargo variant of Dragon became the first commercial spacecraft to successfully rendezvous with and attach to the ISS. The first flight of astronauts on Dragon 2 occurred on the Crew Dragon Demo-2 mission in May 2020. Until September 2022, Dragon totaled 35 launches, 32 visits to the ISS and 15 reflown missions.
Elon Musk, who is a visionary, a modern Wernher von Braun, introduced some essential concepts that ensure the success of his company’s products.
The significant differences between the two companies are apparently due to their different corporate culture.
We remember the catastrophes of two Boeing 737 MAX planes as a result of the modernization and makeover of an older model of Boeing 737, in the conditions of fierce competition with Airbus, in which the new culture of the company prioritized profit and marketing concerns at the expense of the technical reliability of the new model. Since its inception, Boeing has been an engineering company dedicated to building reliable aircraft that set an example in the industry. Almost all of the company’s CEOs had been highly experienced corporate engineers whose main concern was the quality of the engineering and less about the finances. It was a philosophy that had enabled major innovations in the industry and encouraged employees to be creative and dynamic. With the increase in competition and the decrease in profit in order to advance in the market, costs had to be reduced. One of the areas affected by the cost reduction was that of research and development, thus reducing the company’s ability to bring new models to market in a short time. Where possible, marginal improvement of already existing models was preferred. The development of the SLS is a Space Shuttle derived product. The company culture altered by erroneous policies applied in the field of safety and quality would have had its say sooner or later.
Looking at the SpaceX company, which has a completely different way of approaching the design, testing and use of its products on the market, we see the level of progress achieved.
Starship is the fully reusable vehicle that SpaceX is developing, with the goal of creating a vehicle that can carry cargo and people to the Moon and Mars. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk recently estimated that Starship’s development cost would be 5% to 10% of the Apollo-era Saturn V rocket – which, at an inflation-adjusted $50 billion, puts Starship’s development cost at $2.5 billion to $5 billion.
Beyond a development cost at a fraction of the SLS, SpaceX also expects the cost per launch will be far sensibly lower, with Musk saying in February 2022 that he is “highly confident it would be less than $10 million”.
Elon Musk, who is a visionary, a modern Wernher von Braun, introduced some essential concepts that ensure the success of his company’s products: major investments in innovative technologies, the reuse of his rockets and spaceships to reduce costs and the elimination of any systems and aggregates that are not strictly necessary in the functioning of its products. This ensures low cost and high reliability.
The climbing cost per launch for SLS is staggering in comparison to the monster rocket in development: SpaceX’s Starship. Neither SLS, nor Starship has reached space yet, but both rockets’ inaugural launches are tentatively set for this year.
Starship is also important to NASA’s Artemis program, as SpaceX last year won a $2.9 billion contract to develop a Moon-specific version of the vehicle to serve as the crew lunar lander.
NASA representatives continue to present SLS and Orion as crucial to a “sustainable” approach re-establishing a human presence on the Moon. But the costs continue to mount. The Inspector General’s audit of Artemis from November 2021 found $40 billion has already been spent on the program, with NASA “projected to spend $93 billion on the Artemis effort” by 2025.
Currently, the main competition in the exploration of the Moon and the planet Mars is between the US and… the US, between the government and the private sector.
Currently, the main competition in the exploration of the Moon and the planet Mars is between the US and… the US, between the government and the private sector. Of course, there is also external competition. From behind, with special achievements, some for the first time, comes China. With long-term, well-funded and planned programs, China hopes to catch up with the US in the coming decades. Russia, with the special problems it has, no longer represents a formidable competitor in planetary exploration.
Technologies are advancing rapidly and new companies are beginning to compete with the achievements of today’s space champions. If the traditional technologies in the creation of space systems, still used by government agencies, respectively NASA, can be included in version 1.0, making an analogy with computer systems, what SpaceX achieves by using innovative technologies and reusing space systems can be included in the version of technologies 1.5. Version 2.0 is already making its presence on the market, soon becoming more competitive than the previous barrier-breaker, SpaceX.
The company Relativity designed the world’s first fully reusable, entirely 3D rocket, Terran. It is pioneering a new class of reusable launch vehicles that will open new opportunities for space exploration and scientific research. Made possible through Relativity’s proprietary 3D printing process and exotic materials, Terran 1 and next model Terran R feature unique design geometries that are not possible to achieve in traditional manufacturing, driving exponential innovation and disruption in the industry. Such rockets have 100x fewer parts, radically simplifying manufacturing and increasing viability.
By fusing 3D printing, artificial intelligence, and autonomous robotics, Relativity is printing its rockets’ structure and engines, significantly reducing touch points and lead times, simplifying the supply chain, and increasing overall system reliability. Relativity can create its rockets from raw material within 60 days. The first launch of Terran 1 is scheduled for the fall of 2022. The founders of Relativity are Tim Ellis and Jordan Noone, airspace engineers, having behind their business very heavy investors.
Impulse Space Inc. is leading the development of in-space transportation services for the inner solar system, partnering and launching missions with Relativity Space Inc. to deliver the first commercial payload to Mars. With an anticipated launch window starting in 2024, the historic partnership rapidly advances the companies’ shared goal of a multiplanetary existence for humanity. The founder of Impulse Space Inc. is Tom Mueller, one of the founding members of SpaceX, with over 30 years of propulsion development experience.
Companies and private investments in the cosmic field have come to outpace governmental, bureaucratic and expensive agencies, which will invest in the future only in scientific research and interplanetary exploration, where private companies do not yet see a prosperous business. They will do so because a whole range of services will be contracted from private providers.
Visionaries like Wernher von Braun, Elon Musk, and the new rising stars in tech have changed and will continue to change the world, ensuring the future of exploration from Apollo to Artemis and beyond.
Dumitru-Dorin Prunariu works as an expert within the Romanian Association for Space Technology and Industry – ROMSPACE – and as a member of the Board of the Romanian Space Agency.
In May 1981 Prunariu accomplished an eight-day space flight on board Soyuz-40 spacecraft and Saliut-6 space station.
Prunariu is one of the founding members and former president of the Association of Space Explorers (ASE), was also the President of the Romanian Space Agency (1998-2004), the Ambassador of Romania to the Russian Federation (2004), the chair of the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (UN COPUOS) (2010-2012), representative of Romania in the International Relations Committee of the European Space Agency (ESA), Member of the Trustees Board of the International Astronautical Academy, the Vice-Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Asteroid Foundation, registered in Luxembourg, a special adviser to the “Moon Village Association” (MVA), registered in Vienna, observer member of UN COPUOS, and chair of the Global Experts Group on Sustainable Lunar Activities (GEGSLA), organized by MVA.
Prunariu is a co-author of several books regarding space technology and space flight and has presented/published numerous scientific papers. He earned a degree in aerospace engineering from the University Politehnica of Bucharest and a Ph.D. in the field of space flight dynamics. Prunariu is also an Honorary Member of the Romanian Academy.
Prunariu is an Honorary Citizen of several cities and Doctor Honoris Causa of several higher education institutions from Romania, Republic of Moldova, and US.
Asteroid “10707 Prunariu” bears his name.