Everyone’s favorite commercial space company has won the NASA contract for the next crewed lunar lander. That’s right, unless you’ve been living under a rock you probably already know that SpaceX and its Lunar Starship won the contract for the Artemis program’s Human Landing System.
On one hand I am thrilled about this choice. Love it or hate it, you have to agree that SpaceX is innovative. Their development method of building and testing, seeing what works and not just relying on simulations seems to have paid off with Starship, as well as provide us with some spectacular fireworks. The concept of maximum reusability has cut their launch costs drastically compared to industry norms and placed them ahead of the other companies in the running for this contract.
SpaceX has also captured something that I think every other company besides Virgin Galactic has missed. They are largely responsible for bringing public excitement back to space industry through not just their technology (although I will remember watching the twin Falcon Heavy boosters land till the day I die) but also through their design. After the reveal of the SpaceX space suits, The New York Times reported that Elon Musk used Jose Fernandez, the costume designer for movies like “The Avengers” and “The Fantastic Four” to create the futuristic suits. In a separate interview with Bleep Magazine, Fernandez said “When people put this spacesuit on, he wants them to look better than they did without it, like a tux. You look heroic in it” Musk later said that he wanted a spacesuit design that would get kids excited and want to wear it themselves. I think it’s fair to say that these spacesuits excite the little kid in all of us, make us want to put one on and hop in a rocket. This same design theory extends to SpaceX’s spacecraft as well. Crew Dragon looks much sleeker than any other existing capsule and Starship is on another level. It brings back some of that midcentury space age design and it seems, some of that optimism as well.
All of this is a long-winded way of saying that SpaceX really deserved to be one of the winners of this contract. I do not believe however, that they should have been the only one. NASA was expected to choose two winners for the contract. The thought process for this move is to foster competition between the two winners but also to ensure that there is a backup option in case one experiences delays or has problems after production. We saw with the Space Shuttle the dangers of having one pathway for human space access from the US. Having only one option to go to and return from the Moon, is an equal if not greater risk.
SpaceX received the 2.9-billion-dollar contract, but it wasn’t as straightforward as it may have appeared. According to a NASA document obtained by the Washington Post, it seems that the decision was made because “NASA’s current fiscal year budget did not support even a single [contract] award” and that SpaceX was able to alter its payment schedule so that it fits within NASA’s current budget. Basically, NASA is chronically underfunded for the work it is expected to do.
After learning about this situation, a quote popped into my mind from a book I had recently finished called Spacepower Ascendant. In this book the author, Joshua Carlson, states that “Individual innovation cannot make up for national failure”¹. The current situation seems to be precisely what he warns of. Congress has failed to authorize the budget required for not only this mission, but for what NASA needs to operate on a regular basis. Using the Band-Aid of SpaceX’s nontraditional flexibility to make up for budgetary shortfalls cannot work indefinitely. Carlson warns that in this global economy, a business can be drawn away from its home country by another nation that offers it a better deal. We cannot always expect SpaceX to be around to cover the shortfalls of the national space program and assume that they will not move to a market that provides more money and opportunities.
This all comes down to the fact that we need to appropriately fund NASA, more specifically congress needs to. It is crucial that elected officials not just say they support the Artemis program but to put the nation’s money behind it. Of course, there are some who will instantly jump and say why should we spend that money on NASA when we could use it to fix problems here on Earth. However, you need to spend about five minutes on google to understand that every penny spent on space exploration benefits us on Earth. I won’t dive to deep here because there are endless articles that explore this topic, but a fully funded Artemis program will create many jobs here on Earth, not just NASA employees but contractors and sub-contractors, as well as potentially opening the door to a new space economy. On top of that, there is not a day that we live without space. Try using your cell network or going to an ATM without the timing signal from a GPS satellite. I also won’t get into all the technologies we use every day that exist because they were developed by the space program. All the money spent on this new Moon mission will be purely beneficial to this country and the rest of the world.
The Artemis program is also a great deal. Americas plan to return to the Moon is projected to cost about $28 billion over 5 years. That sounds like a lot but the Apollo program, adjusted for inflation, cost $283 billion so it’s quite a discount. This money also would pay for not one but 4 Lunar landings, a space station around the Moon and a Lunar surface base. Not to mention kickstarting a commercial space industry worth trillion, more so to the first nation that gets a foothold on the Moon and starts figuring out how to exploit Lunar resources. I think it’s fair to say that this program would have an incredible return on investment. Not to get political but the current administration has no issues pushing for trillion-dollar plans aimed to improve the country. Surely a small percentage of that money can be used to fund a program this important.
Long story short, space exploration and the money spent on it is easily a net benefit. What we need to do as a country is work towards lobbying our representatives to push for enough funding for NASA and the Artemis program. If you are an American citizen and you think this is a worthwhile program, email or call your elected officials to voice your opinion that this program needs the money that has been requested. You cannot expect others to handle this, and the more pressure put on members of congress, the more likely they are to push for the necessary cash. Consider also joining an organization like The Planetary Society that actively advocates to congress for important space priorities including increased NASA funding and planetary defense programs.
At the time of the writing of this article, Blue Origin and Dynetics have filed protests over the awarding of this contracts and NASA has instructed SpaceX to stop working until it investigates the complaints. These complaints are based on the fact that not only did NASA not select two landers as originally stated, but the competitors were not able to amend their original proposals to address NASAs budget shortfalls like SpaceX was. They also argue that NASA is overlooking significant design risks in the Lunar Starship in because of the cost. Summed up, these arguments bring home the point that NASA needs appropriate funding for the tasks they have set out to complete and the United States needs to set itself up for the future and make space a national priority or risk falling behind countries like China.
- Spacepower Ascendant: Space Development Theory and a New Space Strategy, by Joshua P. Carlson, Joshua Carlson, 2020, p. 138.