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Home SCIENCE The 'schedule is precarious': Lori Garver on NASA's Artemis I Moonshot

The ‘schedule is precarious’: Lori Garver on NASA’s Artemis I Moonshot

Lori Garver, a former NASA deputy administrator, opposes reinventing the wheel. pot, She has writtenwas not created to do something again. So it’s no surprise that it’s become a thoughtful critique of the space agency’s approach to returning humans to the moon, which relies on rockets similar to the ones NASA used to launch Apollo-era astronauts and space shuttles ago. decades.

NASA, Garver argues, is at its best when it wields its formidable powers to meet challenges far beyond the reach of the private sector, whether it’s exploring other planets or helping to protect our own. Instead of reiterating the Apollo program, he believes the space agency’s most urgent missions should involve tasks such as combating climate change, defending Earth against threatening asteroids and developing transformative technologies for the 21st century. That expansive realm may seem like it leaves little room for astronautical prowess, though Garver acknowledges that human space exploration remains a vital part of NASA’s mission. Still, he says, while the space agency’s sights are on off-world horizons, it should at least spend some of its multibillion-dollar annual budget fostering innovations to radically improve the way humans can get there.

Appointed by the Obama administration, Garver was deputy administrator of NASA from 2009 to 2013. During that time, which she candidly recounts in her memoirs escape from gravity, laid the groundwork for the agency’s pivot from an expensive reliance on legacy aerospace contractors to collaborations with newer companies like SpaceX, which offer more affordable and agile launch services. The result? SpaceX has transported cargo to the International Space Station 25 times. Today it is the only company capable of launching astronauts into orbit from the US, which it has done seven times.

But that could change soon. On August 29, NASA will send its human-friendly heavy-lift megarocket, the space launch system (SLS), as well as an accompanying Orion crew capsule, to orbit the moon. If all goes according to plan, the mission—Artemis I—will open the door to creating a lunar-orbiting space station called Gatecoming back humans on the lunar surface and perhaps eventually send them to Mars.

american scientist met with Garver before the test flight and discussed the next milestone, why it matters, what’s at stake, SpaceX itself Starship megarocket (which NASA now plans to use as a lunar lander for Artemis) and what Garver is most excited about in rocket science.

[An edited transcript of the interview follows.]

Artemis I is just around the corner and, for the first time, with a seemingly solid target release date. What are your thoughts on the show as this release approaches? How do you feel about it right now?

I’m conflicted. I want to embrace this point in history that so many people have worked for: having the ability to go to the moon again. But for me, the opportunity cost in time and dollars, competing with programs that would be much more efficient, and the recognition that I don’t see a realistic and sustainable path for this program, all of that makes it difficult.

For the last 30+ years of my career, when we talked about going back to the moon, we always came back to stay. Because we were going to reduce the cost. And it was going to be sustainable. And we were going to have valuable things to do there. I don’t feel like those pieces are in place yet.

Are you optimistic about the chances of success of the Artemis program in general? How many times do you think SLS will fly?

They ask me a lot. My first answer is: a single digit. But I do not know. He has not flown once successfully. It’s a new rocket, albeit with old parts, but it’s still complicated. Early rockets often have a few tweaks to work out. The tricky part is that the cast rate doesn’t really allow for issues, so it might limit its use. But there is a lot of political support for it.

Really, the question is: Is Artemis a priority for this nation? Do we feel we must, as we feel during Apollo, put people on the moon in the next few years? And if we do, that current architecture requires a lot of things: SLS, Orion, Starship, eventually Gateway, the space suits. There are a lot of moving parts that need to be put together and at this point I’m not clear on which one is the long tent pole.

Do you think Artemis is a national priority? Should be?

I don’t think the public or even the political leaders are very aware that we are at least planning to land on the moon in three years. More people knew about the Apollo program, so in that sense, no, I don’t think it’s a priority. And for me, that’s fine. The first time you do something, it is more visible. But like the first time, we should have a good excuse.

What do you think is the value of returning humans to the moon? Should people be worried and excited?

If this program was done in a different way than Apollo, like really cutting costs and really advancing technology and being reusable and sustainable, I think that would be exciting, and not just exciting! These are wonderful and inspiring things to do if you are returning real value in the way that Apollo did, which was not just to show leadership to the world but to promote an industrial capability. [and] promote our national security and our economic vitality by opening up new markets and that sort of thing.

For me, one of the exciting things about what’s to come is having a larger conversation about what we’re doing in space. I feel like what I brought to NASA ended up being of greater value because I had a different background than most people who had come before. NASA does what it does; it excites the people it excites. They come and work there, and they want to do the same.

So I love these moments where they cheer us on, and I think the discussion is healthy. That’s why I’m conflicted with your first question. Because for Artemis, there is an element of me that is very excited. I love talking to my friends and family who are not involved in the space. They have no idea what we’re doing, and I wish we were doing it in a way that, when we explain it, people are like, “uh-huh, of course we should be doing that.” We’ll get more people talking about what we’re doing with this release, whether it’s a perfect success or not. It will be a very different conversation, depending on the outcome.

What happens if this initial test flight fails, if there is a problem with the SLS, or if Orion doesn’t return safely?

The test flight program is precarious. One of my concerns is that we don’t have a test program that is robust in any way. [Conducting] a test flight and then not being able to take off again for another two years, for me, it is not a test. Because if it goes wrong, then what? You can’t put astronauts in the next one, so you have to try again in two years? A lot can happen in two years, and then of course you have Starship, and that could give Starship the opening.

Starship, of course, is intended to be a fully reusable, human-friendly heavy-lift rocket, which could make it far more capable and cost-effective than the SLS. It has yet to fly, though SpaceX may attempt an orbital test later this year. Do you think Starship will work?

That is a very direct question. I usually say, “If Starship gets going, it’ll be revolutionary,” but that’s not really giving my point of view. I don’t think he knows enough about it other than to say, “SpaceX has delivered what they’ve said in the past, even if it takes longer.” And I think they probably will. I’m not one of those people who just says, “It will work 100 percent.” But I’ll tell you what, [with] NASA put a couple of billion dollars into the lunar lander that Starship requires, it sure looks like the Artemis architecture is counting on it to succeed.

How expensive is SLS and how can it be so expensive? Can you put these numbers in the context of Apollo or the space shuttle?

You can compare dollars, and it all depends on where you start and what you include, but Apollo, [the] entire program, was in the range of $150 billion. NASA’s inspector general said Artemis will cost in the [range of] mid-$90 billion by 2025 And we haven’t even landed yet. So each launch costs $4 billion when you can only have them every two years compared to a Saturn V, which, I think, in the first five years, was launched about 12 times.

More important to me is: back then we had no choice! There was no alternative! NASA initially estimated that SLS would cost $8 billion; Congress added another $2 billion. I think he NASA Authorization Act Says $11 Billion—that’s just for the rocket. Orion was supposed to cost $4 billion, then $6 billion, then $8 billion. So together that would have been $18 billion, and we’ve spent $43 billion.

All that is in comparison, for example, with that of SpaceX. heavy falcon which has now been successfully launched three times and has about 75 percent of the capacity of the SLS.

This is a very broad and poorly worded question, but if you can speculate, where do you think NASA would be now if the agency had taken a different path and not moved forward with SLS and Orion? What would be different?

I think that in the end we would have organized a contest, as we have done [NASA’s Commercial Crew and Cargo and Program], if we needed more capacity for a bigger rocket, and we would have seen the acceleration of those private sector initiatives that we see today. both jeff [Bezos] and elon [Musk] had told us that they were already investing in big rockets, but once NASA decided, “We’re just going to do it ourselves,” [Bezos and Musk] he had much less incentive to do it quickly.

I think more money could have been invested in our earth science programs that people benefit from, far beyond NASA employees and contractors. This is the real question: Who is NASA’s customer? And if we can focus more on customer-advancement missions that have a broader impact, that would be better. And that includes not spending money. [on the SLS for] reconditioning engines we already had, building [fuel] tanks that we already knew how to build, etc. They could have invested in technologies that would allow us to really lower the cost of launching and making things reusable and have programs that are going to be more sustainable.

You ask, “Who is the customer?” Aren’t taxpayers the customer?

Taxpayers are the customer. Too often we see the customer as a few members of Congress or the very contractors who make money from our programs or the academics who do government-funded research. It’s a bit like a “self-licking ice cream cone” (not my term).

What are you most excited about in rocket science these days?

I am, as I always have been, excited about the search for life beyond Earth, including Mars, Mars sample returnas well as extrasolar planets that we first encountered with Kepler and now JWST [the James Webb Space Telescope]. I really bought into the great questions that we can learn through rocket science. Contact It’s my favorite sci-fi movie.

I think “Are we alone?” The question is the deepest we can ask and is worth spending a lot of money on.

Yeah, and we don’t even spend much [on answering that question]. It’s pretty well leveraged.

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