Starship, Budgets, Complacency — Jim Free’s Top Worries About Artemis

Starship, Budgets, Complacency — Jim Free’s Top Worries About Artemis

The successful Artemis I uncrewed test flight last year was a feather in NASA’s cap as it gets ready to return American astronauts to the lunar surface. But many challenges lie ahead. In fact, the man in charge of the program is worried Artemis I went so well that complacency will set in. Not to mention whether SpaceX’s Starship Human Landing System will be ready in time or if he’ll get the budget he needs. All in all, he thinks that first post-Apollo Moon landing likely will slip from 2025 to 2026.

Jim Free, NASA Associate Administrator for Exploration Systems Development. Photo Credit: NASA/Joel Kowsky

Jim Free, NASA’s Associate Administrator for Exploration Systems Development, runs the part of NASA charged with getting American astronauts back on the surface of the Moon and then to Mars. The Artemis program, named after Apollo’s twin sister in Greek mythology, is a massive undertaking involving not only NASA, but commercial and international partners.

Six months ago, the first Artemis mission finally flew after years of delays. Several launch scrubs for technical reasons, exacerbated by two hurricanes within weeks of each other, made the almost flawless 25.5-day flight of Artemis I from November 16December 11 all that much sweeter.

The flight went so well that Free is worried the NASA and contractor teams building and launching the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and Orion crew spacecraft may let their guard down for the next launch.

That’s Artemis II and will be the first flight with a crew. The four astronauts — three American and one Canadian — were named in April.

The Artemis II crew: Clockwise from front center: Reid Wiseman (NASA), Christina Koch (NASA), Victor Glover (NASA), Jeremy Hansen (Canadian Space Agency). Photo credit: Josh Valcarcel

Speaking to a joint meeting of the Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board (ASEB) and Space Studies Board (SSB) of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine yesterday, Free reiterated much of what he told the NASA Advisory Council’s Human Exploration and Operations Committee last month.

Complacency is a top concern exactly because Artemis I, after it finally got off the launch pad, worked so well.

“We can become complacent and think we did really great on Artemis I and that means we’re going to be great on Artemis II. But the fact is the only thing that translates between the two is engineering. We’re building a new capsule. We’re building a new rocket. So we have to be diligent about how we’re building things.”

Liftoff of Artemis I, an uncrewed test flight of the Space Launch System rocket and Orion crew spacecraft, November 16, 2022. Photo credit: NASA/Joel Kowsky

He’s also worried about the budget and making short-term decisions that have future unintended consequences. He cited the decision a few years ago to reuse the avionics boxes from Artemis I for Artemis II instead of buying a second set. It may have saved some money at the time, but now Artemis II can’t fly for two years as the boxes are removed, recertified and installed in the new vehicle. That’s a long time between flights.

“I’m worried about short-sighted budget decisions today to fit in a box that are going to cause a risk somewhere down the road. And our risk right now is all about keeping a cadence of missions that keep our skills sharp. And we’re going to put an exploration program in a box to fit a cap of a funding level. … I know that’s how this works, but I worry that we are making short-sighted decisions that are introducing risks and introducing delays that are going to keep us from going back to the Moon.”

He was only one of the top NASA officials expressing concerns about future budgets at the ASEB/SSB meetings, including Deputy Administrator Pam Melroy. Free also expressed frustration about needing to makes programmatic adjustments two or three times a year as funding profiles change.

Right now, Artemis II is targeted for launch in November 2024 and Free seemed fairly confident about that date.

But not about Artemis III, which is supposed to launch by the end of 2025. That’s the one that will put astronauts back on the lunar surface for the first time since Apollo 17 in 1972.

Artist’s illustration of SpaceX’s Starship Human Landing System on the surface of the Moon. Note the astronauts at the base of the vehicle for scale. Credit: SpaceX

SLS and Orion will get the Artemis III crew from Earth to lunar orbit, but getting from orbit down to and back from the surface requires a Human Landing System. NASA decided to acquire HLS through Public-Private Partnerships and selected SpaceX to develop the first one. SpaceX will use its Starship system and agreed to launch an uncrewed flight test to land on the Moon before putting NASA astronauts on it. NASA did not require SpaceX to demonstrate it could lift off from the Moon, only land there and the version of Starship that will be used for the uncrewed test is not the same as what the Artemis III crew will use.

SpaceX’s Starship explodes over the Gulf of Mexico, April 20, 2023, after it went out of control during the first orbital launch attempt and self destruct signals were sent. Screengrab.

Free’s concern is when Starship HLS will be ready. The first orbital launch attempt of Starship failed in April, severely damaging the launch pad in the process and creating a massive cloud of debris that covered not only a nearby town, but protected wildlife refuges. Environmentalists are suing the FAA for inadequate environmental reviews before approving the launch. The FAA regulates the commercial space launch industry and U.S. commercial space launches require an FAA license.

Not only that, but Starship cannot go directly to the Moon like SLS. It must stop in Earth orbit and refuel. That means SpaceX has to demonstrate the ability to transfer cryogenic propellants (methane and liquid oxygen) in microgravity (which has never been done with cryogenics), build a fuel depot in orbit, fill it up using an unconfirmed number of Starship launches (reportedly as many as 14), and launch the uncrewed HLS test flight before they’re ready for Artemis III.

SpaceX has expansive plans to use Starship for launching satellites to Earth orbit, and private astronauts to orbit, the Moon, and Mars, so the HLS contract is a small part of its business case. But it is essential for NASA.

Free said NASA has been talking to the FAA and “I think we’re in sync now,” but they are looking at just the next launch license, not NASA’s big picture of everything that has to happen before Starship HLS is ready for Artemis III.

“SpaceX is on contract to do an uncrewed lander. Our milestone before that is the ship-to-ship cryogenic propellant transfer. We’re delaying our CDR [Critical Design Review] until they complete that and then they have to just get flying. So when you step back and you look at — that’s a lot of launches to get those missions done. So our FAA partners are critical to that.

“We have a firm fixed price contract with SpaceX. Their job is to deliver that to us and I’m gonna hold them accountable to it.

“So I get a lot of questions, will you make the date [2025 for the Artemis III landing]? Well, they need to get flying before we can get any kind of assessment. And if you figure they need a number of launches to do their depot for our crewed flight, they need a number of launches to do the demo, they need a number of launches just to get flying. They have a significant number of launches to go and that, of course, gives me concern about the December of 2025 date.

“We just got a schedule update from them last week and [NASA HLS Program Manager] Lisa Watson-Morgan and her team are going through that. I’m happy to answer more questions about it, but I do have a lot of concern about it. And my expectation is they’re gonna deliver. It’s great that we have a firm fixed price contract because these are not cost uppers to us, but the fact is if they’re not flying on the time they said it’s no good to have a firm fixed price contract, other than we’re not paying more, which is important.

Later, when asked about launch dates for upcoming Artemis missions, he was even more explicit.

“For Artemis III, I mentioned December ’25 is our current manifest date, but with the difficulties that SpaceX has had, I think that’s, that’s really, really concerning. So you can think about that slipping probably into ’26.”

The Artemis program began under the Trump Administration. In March 2019, Vice President Mike Pence suddenly announced that NASA would land astronauts on the Moon by 2024, the end of a second Trump term if he won reelection. Achieving such a goal in just 5 years was greeted with great skepticism in the space community and in Congress.

Nonetheless, President Biden embraced the Artemis program and the 2024 landing date when he took office in 2021, but by the end of that year NASA conceded the date would slip to 2025. A delay into 2026 has been widely anticipated. Free’s remarks about Starship underscore that likelihood.

SpaceX has other customers for crewed Starship flights already. In 2018, a wealthy Japanese businessman, Yusaku Maezawa, purchased the first Starship crewed flight around the Moon (no landing) with 2023 as the projected launch date. When it will actually fly is unclear, but he’s chosen a group of people to accompany him. Last year, a wealthy American entrepreneur, Jared Isaacman, purchased the first Starship crewed flight to Earth orbit.

So far NASA is the only customer for human lunar landings, however.

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