NASA Continues Slow And Steady Pace Towards Moon

It’s often said that the wheels of government turn slowly, and perhaps nowhere is this on better display than at NASA. While it seems like every week we hear about another commercial space launch or venture, projects helmed by the national space agency are often mired by budget cuts and indecisiveness from above. It takes a lot of political will to earmark tens or even hundreds of billions of dollars on a project that could take decades to complete, and not every occupant of the White House has been willing to stake their reputation on such bold ambitions.

In 2019, when Vice President Mike Pence told a cheering crowd at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center that the White House was officially tasking NASA with returning American astronauts to the surface of the Moon by 2024, everyone knew it was an ambitious timeline. But not one without precedent. The speech was a not-so-subtle allusion to President Kennedy’s famous 1962 declaration at Rice University that America would safely land a man on the Moon before the end of the decade, a challenge NASA was able to meet with fewer than six months to spare.

Unfortunately, a rousing speech will only get you so far. Without a significant boost to the agency’s budget, progress on the new Artemis lunar program was limited. To further complicate matters, less than a year after Pence took the stage in Huntsville, there was a new President in the White House. While there was initially some concern that the Biden administration would axe the Artemis program as part of a general “house cleaning”, it was allowed to continue under newly installed NASA Administrator Bill Nelson. The original 2024 deadline, at this point all but unattainable due to delays stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic, has quietly been abandoned.

So where are we now? Is NASA in 2022 any closer to returning humanity to the Moon than they were in 2020 or even 2010? While it might not seem like it from an outsider’s perspective, a close look at some of the recent Artemis program milestones and developments show that the agency is at least moving in the right direction.

The Shakedown Cruise

A key component of the Artemis program is the Space Launch System (SLS), a gargantuan rocket derived from Space Shuttle hardware. But unlike the reusable Shuttle, there will be no attempt to recover any of the hardware in-between flights. Each SLS will only fly on a single mission, at the end of which it will crash into the ocean downrange like the Saturn V that took Apollo to the Moon.

After years of delays, the first operational SLS was recently rolled out to Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 39B for final checks before embarking on its debut mission: Artemis I. When it launches this summer, the megarocket will accelerate an uncrewed Orion capsule towards the Moon, where it will orbit for six days to perform checks on the vehicle’s systems, run various experiments that will support subsequent crewed missions aboard Orion, and deploy an array of small CubeSats.

In total the mission will run for a little over 25 days, which will give engineers time to collect data on the radiation environment inside the Orion capsule during deep space flight. Dosimeters inside the cabin will record how much radiation a human crew would have been exposed to in a standard “shirtsleeves” environment, while a second set will quantify the effectiveness of a wearable radiation-shielding vest currently in development by Lockheed Martin and StemRad.

Should everything go to plan, Artemis I will be followed by the Artemis II mission no earlier than 2024. This 10-day mission will see four astronauts make a flyby of the Moon, much like the Apollo 8 “dry run” in 1968. No landing will be attempted, but it will mark the first time humans have traveled beyond low Earth orbit since Apollo 17 in 1972.

Preparing for Touchdown

According to the current plan, humans won’t actually step foot on the Moon until Artemis III, which is slated for no earlier than 2025. Astronauts will launch on the SLS and ride the Orion to lunar orbit, where a customized SpaceX Starship will already be there waiting for them. Two crew members will transfer to the Starship, which will land on the surface and serve as their base of operations for approximately one week. After the surface operations are complete, the Starship will liftoff from the Moon, meet the Orion capsule in orbit, and the reunited crew will return back to Earth.

Standing 50 meters (164 feet) tall, Starship is a very different vehicle than the spidery Apollo Lunar Excursion Module (LEM). It will very literally be like landing the Statue of Liberty on the surface of the Moon, and then launching it back into space in one piece. The massive scale of Starship offers tantalizing possibilities, but also poses considerable challenges. For example, how exactly are astronauts supposed to make “one small step” when the hatch is 12 stories up?

NASA recently released a document that goes over some of the logistical challenges of the Human Landing System (HLS), and how they were working with the teams at SpaceX to convert Starship into a multi-purpose lunar exploration vehicle. That includes a large open elevator that can safely lower astronauts and equipment from the nose of Starship down to the lunar surface. The crew will also need a large airlock so they can enter and exit Starship without decompressing the entire vehicle as was done on the relatively tiny LEM.

None of these features were a secret, or unexpected. Indeed, even the earliest renders of the lunar Starship showed it would have some kind of elevator to descend down the side of the hull. But these photographs of actual prototype hardware being tested shows that we’re not just talking about a concept anymore — the next vehicle to take humans to the Moon is actively under construction.

The More The Merrier

Initially, SpaceX was the only firm to secure a contract from NASA to build an Artemis lunar lander. But some, including Congress, weren’t thrilled with America pinning its triumphant return to the Moon on just one company. Naturally it’s too late to have any of them ready to go by 2025, but as Artemis is supposed to pave the way towards long-term exploration and habitation of our nearest celestial neighbor, there’s plenty of room for other companies to develop additional landing capability.

Lunar Gateway Station

As such, NASA announced earlier this month that they will be looking for commercial partners to develop vehicles for surface operations after Artemis III. The plan is to have the Lunar Gateway station in operation by then, so the contract is specifically looking for vehicles that could ferry astronauts and cargo between the surface and the orbiting facility. In this arrangement, just like with the Starship, the SLS and Orion would still be required to get crews to and from the Moon.

There’s been plenty of debate about the necessity of the expensive booster, which it’s now estimated will cost taxpayers $4 billion per mission, in the face of increasingly capable commercial launch providers. But it seems clear that NASA, or at least those calling the shots from above, want to make sure there’s a niche cut out for it beyond the currently slated Artemis missions.

60 thoughts on “NASA Continues Slow And Steady Pace Towards Moon

    1. The argument is usually that there is almost no water on the moon, and most things you’d use such a colony for require either non-insignificant amounts of water and the oxygen you get from electrolysis or much more sophisticated processes. At least that’s what Zubrin argues in The Case for Mars. There are people who vehemently disagree with him, of course.

      1. “At least that’s what Zubrin argues in The Case for Mars. There are people who vehemently disagree with him, of course.”

        The biggest argument against Zubrin’s Mars case is that given the distance, the cost of some local thing failing is “everyone dies.” The entire benefit of the Artemis program is that if you set up Gateway you can have regular space freight and the overall risk is low and you can learn as you go.

        Zubrin’s argument’s are technically sound, but humans work way better when the cost of failure is cheap. That’s *literally* how SpaceX became such a competitor, and in some ways the entire difference between SLS and Starship.

        I mean, we freaking struggle to drill holes in the ground on other celestial bodies. We’re way dumber than he thinks.

        1. Not too many more failures in the Mars Direct plan lead to death than a moon mission. IIRC it uses a free return trajectory of some sort, so there shouldn’t be loss of life there, but such a trajectory is harder to do in interplanetary travel, and I imagine would take some adjustment to properly aerobrake on return, which is an added risk over a relatively short moon free-return. There’s also redundancy in return vehicle, so if one isn’t ready for launch that isn’t immediately loss of life.

          The main increases in risk, as I see it, are hitting transfer windows for return in case something goes wrong, the increased energy in ascent and descent, life support redundancy and free return precision. If the lunar Starship loses propulsion upon launch or near the end of the landing burn, I could see some situations in which people could live, though it’s a real stretch stretch. It’s easier to build in gobs of life support redundancy at each step of the mission simply because it’s shorter. If something goes wrong on the surface, you can get to lunar orbit and figure it out from there. On mars, you better hope it happens during a transfer window (though I think Mars Direct had orbital life support nominally accounted for in case of an early ascent). A free-return trajectory is harder to do in interplanetary travel, and I imagine would take some adjustment to properly aerobrake on return, which is an added risk over a relatively short moon free-return.

          These aren’t insignificant, but I also don’t see them as prohibitive.

          I’m all for going back to the moon first, we can do it really soon, and there’s no reason not to do both. It’s not like the drive to mars will stop or in any way be impeded by returning to the moon first like Zubrin seems to think. I was just trying to outline what the dominant Mars First ideology is all about.

          1. The Orion spacecraft, for instance, is designed to support the crew, in suits, for up to 6 days in the case of depressurized. That’s long enough for a free return around the Moon (they didn’t choose 6 days for no reason). On a Mars trip, you die.

            “These aren’t insignificant, but I also don’t see them as prohibitive.”

            Of course they’re not prohibitive. But the fact that they’re not insignificant is entirely the point. The Artemis program leads to a *big* leap in interplanetary capabilities. You’re talking about being able to do high-cadence, rapid heavy lift launches and a potentially reusable ascent/descent stage from an orbital platform. With far, far lower risk.

            These are all things that help you *tremendously* with a Mars mission, especially in terms of lowering the cost.

        2. There are many ways to mitigate that, orbiting supply depot, that is in orbit around Mars. Landers fly from orbit to planet with supplies, fabrication materials, in an emergency you can evacuate either way, and mitigate almost any problem, since now you have backup facilities and time on your side.

          1. “There are many ways to mitigate that, orbiting supply depot, that is in orbit around Mars. ”

            Absolutely! That sounds like a great plan.

            Except… we’ve never done anything like that before. The ISS certainly isn’t a good analog for that, since it’s still deep in Earth’s gravity well and well within Earth’s magnetosphere. So maybe before we do that, we should develop an orbiting supply depot closer, and get good practice at much longer-range supply chain logistics and understanding radiation-exposure issues.

            I wonder if NASA’s thought about that. (/sarcasm)

    2. If you say baby steps, lets colonise the sahara. The temperature differences are lower, there is oxigen and probably water and of something goes wrong, help is near by. Now to find a way to get it greener around there…

      Oh and it needs less energy.

      1. Let’s not colonize the Sahara but reforest it instead. That would do the rest of the planet a lot more good.

        Meanwhile let’s colonize the Moon and Mars at the same time as planting those trees. ~8Billion people is certainly enough to multi-task.

        1. “8Billion people is certainly enough to multi-task.”

          Sadly not at the moment. Most are busy fighting wars or watching netflix instead, while doomscrolling through facebook and co.

          1. … and some of them are reading your post and might think: “Am I like this?” and get a tiny bit of hope they can try something, whatever it is, along with a few others. ;)

  1. “In total the mission will run for a little over 25 days, which will give engineers time to collect data on the radiation environment inside the Orion capsule during deep space flight. Dosimeters inside the cabin will record how much radiation a human crew would have been exposed to in a standard “shirtsleeves” environment, while a second set will quantify the effectiveness of a wearable radiation-shielding vest currently in development by Lockheed Martin and StemRad.”

    This isn’t the first time we’ve been to the moon, shouldn’t we already know this data? Why is this the headline deliverable?

    1. Do you think they actually cared about how much radiation dose they got back then?

      Also, new capsule means you have to measure again. The radiation outside may be the same, but NASA has to prove it’s safe for the astronauts inside the capsule.

    2. Beyond the obvious fact that this is a completely different spacecraft than Apollo and so whatever data was collected no longer applies, it doesn’t take a month to get to the Moon – Orion is designed to be used for other deep space missions, so this is going to serve as an analog for a longer flight.

  2. Soo now they seems to agree with Verner won Braun on the size of the ship they need to go to moon.
    But a simpler choice would be to reengineer a 50 year old solution just go to the museem and copy the
    only yet proved Capsyl for moon travel the Apollo. And then you don’t have to care about the radiation.

    1. “Why even use the SLS at all then (besides the sunk cost fallacy)?”

      It’s not “Starship vs SLS.” Starship’s the crew vehicle, Super Heavy’s the launch vehicle. So it would be “Orion vs Starship” and “SLS vs Super Heavy.” There are *extremely* good reasons to use Orion vs Starship as the crew launch vehicle – Orion’s already had orbital tests, and obviously even the base Starship hasn’t. Orion’s significantly lighter than Starship, so getting Orion to the Moon quickly (because… humans) is much easier. Starship can take a while to get to the Moon (it needs like 4 tanker flights) because… no humans.

      Now, if you ask “why not just launch Orion on Super Heavy” that’s… a different question.

      If you just accept the politics of the situation, the Artemis program’s really technically very cool. SpaceX has obviously been building up the capability for rapid, cheap reflights, and adding (significant) in-orbit refueling will dramatically expand human spaceflight capabilities.

      1. What would make sense, would be to launch the Starship, refuel it, then launch the crew in a Dragon on an F9. Transfer crew to Starship, and go to the moon. The NASA hardware is worse in every way.

        1. I completely agree with Matthew.
          SpaceX hardware is reusable and therefore much cheaper. SLS is eye-wateringly expensive and will eat up NASA’s budget.
          Let’s prioritise making Starship human-rated and fly that to the Moon.

          1. “SLS is eye-wateringly expensive and will eat up NASA’s budget.”

            SLS does nothing to NASA’s budget because if you take it away, they take away the money for it, too. From NASA’s point of view, it’s free. It’s politics. It exists for totally separate reasons.

  3. By the way, China is also sending a rocket to the moon, supposedly in 2026, maybe in 2025, according to their revised schedule, which was dramatically sped up while the US’s schedule was slowed down. Seems like NASA is failing and congress doesn’t care about China overtaking the US in space exploration as not to long ago the US was far ahead of China.
    The only chance the US has of getting back its lead is SpaceX’s starship, once it’s ready. It will do far more than just function as a Human Landing System for Artemis.

  4. You’re ignoring SpaceX’s *other* manned launch vehicle, the Dragon. It’s fully operational, as opposed to one unmanned test flight (and that was 8 years ago!).

    NASA can’t send astronauts to the Moon without SpaceX, but SpaceX can certainly do so without NASA.

    1. “You’re ignoring SpaceX’s *other* manned launch vehicle, the Dragon. It’s fully operational, as opposed to one unmanned test flight (and that was 8 years ago!).”

      Dragon’s a *low Earth orbit* vehicle. It’s not a deep space vehicle. Yes, you could convert Dragon into a Moon vehicle, but… it’d be a crappy one. SpaceX already thought about it, and abandoned it in favor of Starship.

      If you want simple examples as to why it’s not trivial, you’d need to redo the comms/nav infrastructure (which uses GPS) and rad-hard the electronics, and it’d still have less safety infrastructure and be more cramped than Orion.

      I’m not saying Orion/SLS was a good use of money (obviously, it wasn’t, but… politics). But given that you have the program and, well, it’s your only way to get funding for a Moon vehicle, it’d be nuts to abandon it in favor of slapdash modifications.

      Again, SpaceX literally abandoned the idea of using Dragon 2 for a lunar flyby in favor of a Starship launch, and yeah, sure, they’re talking about 2023 for that mission, but… c’mon.

        1. Nope. It’s the return that matters. Starship’s heat shield hasn’t flown and isn’t tested yet (and given the different construction, is effectively new). Dragon’s has, but you don’t want to go to the Moon with Dragon. Orion’s has (and has *long* history) and works to go to the Moon.

          You can’t (currently) go to the Moon with Starship, return, and redock with Dragon because you can’t abort easily.

          Don’t get me wrong, of course Orion’s going to be ludicrously higher cost than other options *would* have been. But that’s completely pointless, Orion’s existence is political. So the question is now that you *have* Orion, is it a better option right now? Yeah, it is. Will that change in the future? Very likely.

          1. It’s expected that the lunar version of Starship won’t even have a heat shield; it would just be dead weight for a craft that’s never going to land back on Earth. It also saves development time since, as you say, the heat shield design hasn’t even been tested yet.

          2. Really, the main reason why Starship won the lander bid is because SpaceX is doing it for a ludicrously low cost. I don’t think people realize how insane the Starship HLS lander idea is. Yes, it’s a $2.89B contract. But that’s a contract for *sixteen launches*. Sixteen! Spaced 12 days apart!

            They probably won’t need that many, but that’s the advantage of SpaceX tooling up for ludicrous numbers of Starships. I still think it’s amazing that NASA went with something this *risky*, but if this works, holy cow, it’s an entirely new era.

          3. Not sure its quite as risky as you make out Pat, as the company have a good track record in a very similar project in the Falcon rockets, and the pace of development is rather remarkable.

            That said I do agree I’m surprised NASA were allowed to to contract SpaceX at all with how much the political world is pushing museum worthy tech for entirely stupid political reasoning, the stuff no doubt still works fine, but you don’t go rebuilding a Cray for real work anymore…

          4. What I meant was that it’s risky on its face. As in, it’s a pace and technology they haven’t gotten close to with the vehicle they need. The fact that NASA went with them just shows you how much credit they’re giving them on the pace of development.

            The “museum worthy” tech bit is a little over the top: Orion’s a good design, and while SLS is a bit nuts (but see below), superheavy lift rockets aren’t easy. I mean, seriously, Starship’s first flight is going to be a mostly up-and-down affair and SLS’s first is friggin launching Orion around the Moon. The confidence levels between the two vehicles right now are very different.

            I’d rather praise SpaceX for it’s pace of innovation than insult the SLS. It’s really only in comparison that it looks bad, and part of that is Musk posts funny YouTube videos and laughs when the rockets go boom.

          5. SLS is a museum piece, its technology from last millennium barely reheated…
            Doesn’t make it incapable of doing useful work, but it really has been obsolete for a very very long time…

            Though obsolete and still in use where space is concerned has been par for the course pretty much since the Shuttle was designed – its only the private companies pushing space launch hardware much at all since then.

          6. “Doesn’t make it incapable of doing useful work, but it really has been obsolete for a very very long time…”

            It cannot be obsolete if there is no other current vehicle capable of doing what it can do. That’s literally what the word obsolete means.

            Yes, Starship + Super Heavy nominally *will* obsolete it, but, as I’ve noted elsewhere: Artemis 1 is stacked. On the launch pad. With a wet test in a week. With a nominal launch date likely in 2-3 months. Starship + Super Heavy don’t even have a stack that’s planned to fly to orbit yet.

            Was it a tremendous waste of money? Yes. Of course. Would it have been better to do something different? Absolutely. Will it be totally pointless in likely less than 5 years? Yup.

            It. Doesn’t. Matter. Once Congress came along and basically said “you need to do something with these rocket guys to keep them funded” the SLS was probably a minimally-stupid thing to do. Especially if you have a cynical eye and recognize that NASA awarding the Starship HLS contract implies that SLS will be obsoleted *sooner* rather than later. And several of their changes to the Artemis program have adapted so that it’s entirely possible that the 5 planned SLS flights will be the only ones, ever. It’s almost like NASA’s making it *easier* for the SLS program to be canned. Hmm.

            Is it old technology? Absolutely! So what? Did you want them to develop *new* designs that’d be obsoleted by Starship+Super Heavy too?

            ” its only the private companies pushing space launch hardware much at all since then.”

            Of course they have! NASA’s been trying to get *out* of the launch vehicle business ever since the whole Constellation disaster. I guarantee they would’ve been happy relying on commercial super-heavy lift vehicles if it hadn’t been forced upon them.

          7. Just because nobody built a new big one doesn’t make anything in it less of an obsolete relic – as the word doesn’t mean there is nothing to replace it directly, obsolete also means it is no longer current. In the same way Kernel 2.something is stupidly obsolete but that odd SBC/embedded device with poor documentation only ships with that one image – its massively obsolete technically, even if the hardware is brand new, but there probably isn’t a drop in replacement.

            And no with how pointless and expensive SLS is I’d have rather they spent all that money on more useful things, maybe even simply buying into Starship and getting to mold it to more for some of their uses. You are quite correct though once the political animals have pushed it to happen it wasn’t avoidable.

          8. Yes, I’d like that magic unicorn dust engine to work, too, but we live in reality. That money had to be spent doing something with the Shuttle guys. It literally doesn’t exist for anything else. Given that, what they did was smart, because they’re actually getting *anything* out of it given the ridiculous funding constraints.

            And again: they *did* invest in Starship! They’re funding sixteen freaking launches of the thing. Not to mention the investment boost that comes along with it.

            I mean, on the scale of dumbass wastes of money that Congress has shoved on agencies, this is pretty damn far down the list. Wishing for sane funding is about as likely to happen as unicorn fart quantum EmDrive whatever. You deal with the hand you’re dealt.

          9. Love the analogy Pat, sadly oh so true. Perhaps not quite so bad on this side of the Pond but there is no getting away from that sort of stupidity entirely. You are also quite correct it is at least not entirely a waste as that budget is still being spent on something that should work.

          10. “You are also quite correct it is at least not entirely a waste as that budget is still being spent on something that should work.”

            It’s also not a waste as the rocket guys are still, in fact, employed and busy, and part of me thinks the entire reason SLS exists is to ensure that they aren’t hired by a foreign nation.

  5. Hmmm… I’m sure NASA is a Constitutional government function. Am I right? Maybe this time if they get to the moon, they won’t lose any video tapes or design and construction techniques of the launch vehicles and landers.

  6. keep in mind that NASA does not have a moon rocket,they have
    a space shuttle,minus the shuttle,and a big tube in its place,its
    all outdated and physicly old hardware,also NASA is not the place
    to do space,the go get em rocket jockys are at X or one of the other start ups,I would bet that there is a joke around NASA about “doing the NASA shuffle”,no need to get excited or break a sweat,best you can say is that a few years at NASA looks good on your resume ,but not more than that.

  7. SLS is such a joke, ancient technology, overpriced bloated costs – $50 billion dollars that could have helped revolutionize space technology. Four billion dollars per lanuch that we just throw away with each launch. And not even sure it will work with Boeing’s track record. Time to die.

  8. Astrobiology Vol. 17, No. 10
    Searching for Life on Mars Before It Is Too Late
    1 Oct 2017

    https://www.liebertpub.com/doi/full/10.1089/ast.2017.1703

    Abstract

    …plans are being drafted to send humans to Mars during the 2030 decade, both from international space agencies and the private sector. We argue here that these two parallel strategies for the exploration of Mars (i.e., delaying any efforts for the biological reconnaissance of Mars during the next two or three decades and then directly sending human missions to the planet) demand reconsideration because once an astronaut sets foot on Mars, Planetary Protection policies as we conceive them today will no longer be valid as human arrival will inevitably increase the introduction of terrestrial and organic contaminants and that could jeopardize the identification of indigenous Martian life.

    1. Thereby possibly destroying the chance of definitively answering the most important scientific question in history: did life evolve there independently. If so, life may be very common in the universe. Or panspermia may have been responsible instead.

      Colonizing Mars means contaminating Mars – and never knowing for sure if it had its own native life
      November 6, 2018

      https://theconversation.com/colonizing-mars-means-contaminating-mars-and-never-knowing-for-sure-if-it-had-its-own-native-life-103053

      1. “Thereby possibly destroying the chance of definitively answering the most important scientific question in history: did life evolve there independently.”

        Nonsense.

        First, the idea that life native to Earth, on Mars is going to so out-compete life which has evolved for life on Mars is kind of ludicrous. At least short of enacting some terraforming scheme that we do not have the ability to do today or in the foreseeable future that isn’t going to happen.

        Yes, I know that on Earth we have seen non-native species drive native ones into extinction. Those are species that are native to the same planet, finding similar environments to their own homes on continents that were connected only some millions of years ago. Mars is another world.

        Even if some terrestrial life does find a niche I’m sure any martian life will still live on. The difficulty will be not if that martian life evolved independently but if it didn’t. If martian life does exist but is related to terrestrial life due to some past panspermia event then it might be hard to tell what’s native and what is invasive. That situation is still just a single origin for life in our solar system so it doesn’t say much about how common life is or isn’t in the universe. If there was a separate origin for life on Mars then it’s sure to be strange enough to us that we will be able to tell the difference.

        That said, I do agree that just barging in and dirtying the place up without taking stock of what is or isn’t living there would be unfortunate. The problem I have though is I only see people saying we shouldn’t go there. I don’t see anyone laying out a plan for what steps and how much time we should take to survey Mars for life before sending humans. Becoming a multi-planet species will be beneficial to humanity in multiple ways. It isn’t something we should just put off indefinitely.

        If we need to put it off to answer a scientific question then we need a plan and a timetable to answer that question then get moving. The rate we are already moving on this is nowhere near fast enough.

        1. I almost forgot to mention. Anything found on Mars that is fossilized, until martian colonists have been there long enough to fossilize themselves is clearly martian in origin.

        2. “First, the idea that life native to Earth, on Mars is going to so out-compete life which has evolved for life on Mars is kind of ludicrous. ”

          I could not possibly disagree more.

          Life adapts really well when there’s buckets of free energy, but take that energy away, and of course it struggles. Mars is ridiculously energy constrained compared to Earth, and if there is a pocket where life does survive, its metabolic behavior must be incredibly slow because it simply doesn’t have the resource cycles available on Earth. Which naturally implies that it can’t possibly adapt well to changes.

          The best analog for Mars on Earth are the McMurdo Dry Valleys, which are essentially completely dead except for a few very restricted ecosystems – and of course that’s not even a fair assessment because the MDV isn’t a closed system, and the rest of Earth is so bio and energy rich that a *tiny* amount of leakage into the MDV is orders of magnitude more resources than Mars would have.

          Life just isn’t nearly as adaptable as people make it out to be, and any remaining life on Mars is going to be so limited that without a doubt any invasive species introduction that could possibly survive there will decimate it (and then die itself, obviously).

          That being said, while I appreciate the concerns, Earth life isn’t going to spread on Mars, so isolating areas isn’t that difficult (keeping the MDV safe is dramatically more difficult, for instance, and we manage). There just aren’t any free resources to use.

          1. “Life adapts really well when there’s buckets of free energy,”

            So astronauts or colonists will be dumping “buckets of free energy” along with this terrestrial life contamination? And somehow only the contaminants will have the benefit of this energy?

            “Mars is ridiculously energy constrained compared to Earth”
            Sounds like a great reason to expect skin, gut bacteria or whatever else is stowing along to struggle while the local life has already adapted to this problem.

            “The best analog for Mars on Earth are the McMurdo Dry Valleys, which are essentially completely dead except for a few very restricted ecosystems”

            So, did the first explorers there leave anything that wiped out those very restricted ecosystems?

            “Life just isn’t nearly as adaptable as people make it out to be”
            I feel like you are making my point for me here.

            “without a doubt any invasive species introduction that could possibly survive there will decimate it”
            That was a big jump. What’s the advantage that allows the terrestrial life to do this?

          2. “So astronauts or colonists will be dumping “buckets of free energy” along with this terrestrial life contamination? And somehow only the contaminants will have the benefit of this energy?”

            Uh, yes? Because evolution is slow, and see below: any Martian life won’t be adaptable. How the heck could it be? It hasn’t had to be! The planet’s static!

            “That was a big jump. What’s the advantage that allows the terrestrial life to do this?”

            A massive chemistry biofactory and chemical repository.

            Life on Mars can’t be anywhere near as complicated as life on Earth because it simply doesn’t have the resources. It’s not going to have fragments of instructions to build proteins for wacko crazy environments because there’s no advantage to having them, because no wacko crazy environment has existed on Mars for *three billion years*. Instead, there’d be massive advantage to having redundant information for the few proteins that’d be *useful*.

            Any life on Mars has to be in an *extremely* isolated environment, because… the planet’s dead. There aren’t any full-planet resource cycles going on, so there’s no natural (nearly) closed system like there is on Earth. Liquids that leave the environment are gone, forever. And it’s been *three billion years* so even the slowest loss process would kill things off.

            I should point out that you’re talking about this as if Earth life would suddenly “take over” and become dominant. That’s not what I’m saying. It wouldn’t take over, it’d just destroy it (not destroy as in ‘eat’, destroy as in disturb and cause to die), and then die itself. Because any life on Mars is basically in a bubble, and introducing Earth life/resources/stuff is popping that bubble. You’d introduce new chemicals that’d basically soak up existing (minimal) resources or alter various balances.

            Life on Earth, globally, is *dramatically* out of equilibrium. Things change constantly, because there’s sooo much energy. Life on Mars can’t be.

            “So, did the first explorers there leave anything that wiped out those very restricted ecosystems?”

            It’s Antarctica. The MDV is ~2000 square miles. The number of people that had ever been there before the Antarctic Treaty in the late 1950s (when protections started) is like, less than 10.

            Again, like I said, Earth life isn’t going to destroy life on Mars for the same reason we can keep the MDV safe. Simple area isolation (“don’t go there”) is enough, and it’s a friggin’ planet, so unless it’s only at like, one place, it’s not going to matter. But then again, this is all pointless anyway as the idea that there’s still active life on Mars is so much of a pipe dream that it doesn’t matter. Really, any “ecological protection” procedures on Mars are just practice for Europa or Titan where there’s a much better (though still very bad) chance.

  9. I suspect that what Orion really needs is a Pizza oven.

    By the time the politicians actually get something beyond LEO again it will be to deliver Elon Musk a pizza.

    Don’t be offended. Just prove me wrong. I want you to.

    1. “By the time the politicians actually get something beyond LEO again it will be to deliver Elon Musk a pizza.”

      This launch is Artemis I. The rocket’s rolled out. It’s due to launch in a little over 2 months, in June. Artemis I delivers an Orion spacecraft into a retrograde orbit around the Moon. Starship’s first *orbital* flight is May at the earliest, and, um, that’s “Musk time.”

      SpaceX’s rapid development time is absolutely impressive and I’d absolutely bet on them obsoleting SLS within 5 years, but to bet on SpaceX putting something past LEO before SLS is a sucker’s bet.

        1. The first crewed Artemis mission literally involves SpaceX hardware and is in many ways responsible *for* SpaceX’s current rapid Starship development.

          You’re claiming that SpaceX will get something to LEO before “the politicians” while ignoring the fact that if they do, the only reason they will have done it is because the funding from “the politicians” kept the program funded.

          Yes, SpaceX had a lot of these plans in the works before Starship was selected as the lander, but it’s a *very* capital intensive project and Starship getting selected as the lander absolutely made it easier for SpaceX to raise cash. I just don’t understand the whole “SLS vs Starship” or “SpaceX vs NASA” weird feud. It’s totally a collaborative effort at this point. It sucks that money had to be dumped into SLS rather than funding an adapted Super Heavy fairing for Orion, but that’s politics for you.

          1. I’m claiming that if NASA was going to actually go through with this it wouldn’t already be 50 years since the last time and still not have happened yet. 50 YEARS!!! I’m just waiting for the other shoe to drop and the whole thing gets canceled or re-directed to Mars requiring several more years of development before launching humans during which it actually does get cancelled or something like that.

            Forgive me if this seems jaded. As a little kid in the 80s I remember NASA releasing artist’s images of lunar and martian bases and optimistic stories about how they were only 10 or 15 years out…

            SpaceX really wasn’t part of the point I was trying to make at all although if they can do the job with NASA funding then great. Give all the exploration budget to them. SpaceX can make the rockets and NASA can buy seats for their robots.

            As I said, I want them to prove me wrong. But I dare not hope for it.

          2. “SpaceX really wasn’t part of the point I was trying to make at all although if they can do the job with NASA funding”

            I just… what the heck do you think NASA actually does? Do you think some NASA employee went out there and hammered together the LM, or actually was out there welding Space Shuttle engines together?

            The LM was built and designed by Grumman. The Space Shuttle engines were made by Rocketdyne. NASA *works with* contractors. SpaceX *is a NASA contractor*. The main thing NASA used to do *internally* is design, not manufacture. But that’s a problem, because you can’t scale.

            So NASA specifically took bunches of actions to try to increase space vehicle design in the commercial sector, so it can deal with its massively reduced budgets. We now have space vehicle design in the commercial sector, and you’re like “NASA sucks, they never do anything they say they’re gonna do”?

            I’m still just baffled that you’re jaded *at NASA* for helping you dream of what might have been possible had Congress (and the US voting population, by extension!) had the economic drive to continue funding it. You’re blaming the wrong people.

            Again – that picture up there is Artemis I. It’s literally going to send a human-rated vehicle the farthest distance any human-rated vehicle has ever travelled. The fact that NASA’s been able to do that, plus have a continuously manned space station, plus jumpstart a commercial space industry – all of which while being screwed over constantly by Congress and bullcrap presidential budgets – that’s a freaking *miracle*.

          3. “I’m still just baffled that you’re jaded *at NASA* for helping you dream of what might have been possible had Congress (and the US voting population, by extension!) had the economic drive to continue funding it. You’re blaming the wrong people.”

            Agreed.

            And NASA is still beholden to Congress and the US voting population. Which is why I’ll believe this is really going to happen about the time the astronauts are passing LEO. Until then I’m expecting the other shoe to drop. It’s the society I’m jaded about. I never said that I don’t think the individuals who work at NASA want to do great things.

            Look how feral social media gets every time a billionaire launches a rocket. It’s not like it really has anything to do with inequality either. Do they even notice when other billionaires buy a new yacht or whatever they do with all their money? They just hate anything that might bring some sort of future a little closer.

          4. “Which is why I’ll believe this is really going to happen about the time the astronauts are passing LEO. Until then I’m expecting the other shoe to drop.”

            We’re past that point. Not necessarily for Artemis, although barring catastrophe we’re probably well past the 50/50 point. Artemis 1 is the equivalent of Apollo 6 and they’re basically skipping 7, 9, and 10. The launchers for Artemis 2-4 are already under construction.

            But thanks to Commercial Crew/Cargo bootstrapping the launch vehicle race and the Artemis HLS funding, lunar missions are *going* to happen in the 2020s. Really, the biggest risk at this point isn’t funding, it’s SpaceX. NASA has a *ton* of small missions planned which essentially will make things *very* affordable for a private company if something happens and Artemis gets dropped. The biggest risk would be if SpaceX super-collapses or something (which is partly why NASA’s hedging bets on the HLS stuff).

            I mean, keep in mind: private astronauts at this point are so common it’s not even a big deal. There’s a completely private launch to the ISS scheduled for less than two weeks. Things have changed. The expansion of private spaceflight was a major point of emphasis for NASA in the early 2000s and it absolutely, totally worked.

    2. The SpaceX Starship appears to be having its own teething problems with its motors. Haven’t heard anything really substantial since the last landing attempt. Been quiet on that front.

      1. they’ve been super busy, building their vehicle is the easy part, infrastructure (like a huge ass robot that catches rockets) is soaking up all the time, more importantly, they have basically proved out all the key components of such a system like starship, now comes the long road to integrate those systems together into something that doesn’t resemble a flying red bull can.

        1. The Raptors are the risky part, which is what I’m assuming he’s talking about. SpaceX needs to get that practically to mass production: they probably need on the order of 500-1000 of them in the next few years. It’s kinda nuts.

          That’s the whole “production crisis” bit Musk talked about a few months ago (which he said carries a real risk of bankruptcy – hopefully typical Musk overstatement). Not hard to see why: if you can only make 2-4 per day at full capacity you better get to full capacity damn soon.

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