Artemis vs. Apollo*

*Editor’s note: On March 4, Russia enacted a law that criminalizes public opposition to, or independent news reporting about, the war in Ukraine. The law makes it a crime to call the war a “war” rather than a “special military operation” on social media or in a news article or broadcast. The law is understood to penalize any language that “discredits” Russia’s use of its military in Ukraine, calls for sanctions or protests Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It punishes anyone found to spread “false information” about the invasion with up to 15 years in prison.

– Problems with America’s new lunar program will affect how we think of the old one.

On Aug. 29, NASA canceled the anticipated launch of its super heavy-lift launch vehicle, the Space Launch System due to unexpected problems with the third engine. SLS is part of Donald Trump’s 2017 “return to the moon” initiative, dubbed “Artemis” in 2019, a clear reference to the program as a “twin sister” to the famous Apollo program conducted by the United States between 1961 and 1975 and regarded as one of civilization’s greatest accomplishments.

The postponed mission was intended to be a 42-day unpiloted flyby of the Earth’s natural satellite, the moon, by the Orion module. It was to have conducted a broad array of scientific research, including an examination of radiation levels outside the Van Allen radiation belts.

Given how knowingly doubtful it was that the “sum of technologies” used a half century ago in the Apollo program could deliver the results it boasted about (six successful missions in a row landing American astronauts on the moon and returning them to Earth), it is inevitable that any problem with Artemis will be viewed through that perspective. Given NASA’s zealous attitude about its legendary past, it now has practically no room for error.

Or rather, it has no room to falsify results, since every mission will be monitored by all manner of surveillance, including surveillance from space, primarily (but not exclusively) by the Russians and the Chinese. And Washington’s current relations with Moscow and Beijing are not all that friendly, to put it mildly. Nor are they focused on a some common “vision of the future” as they were in the era of détente and convergence in the 1960s and 1970s. America can reach some kind of consensus in this respect only at the expense of concessions it is not willing to make.

So “Artemis” will inherently have it harder than “Apollo” did more than 50 years ago. And no amount of “feminism” can change that. Tolerance and transgenderism won’t help either. It will be either actual success or the actual lack of any. With the current U.S. economy in a state that is far from ideal, including its ability to implement high-tech projects outside the realm of information technology and biotechnology, it will be something close to a miracle if NASA gets the right result on the full extent of this program.

It’s not that miracles don’t happen, but you can’t seriously count on them. Therefore, the American space corporation’s optimal strategy for the near term is clear: feign vigorous activity while expanding funding to the maximum extent possible, and when technically feasible, make actual progress on “the small stuff,” like developing radiation protective suits, most likely in compelled cooperation with Roscosmos. (By the way, the notorious Elon Musk has relevant experience with his company SpaceX.)

That is why people thought it was quite unlikely that SLS would manage to leave the launch pad at Kennedy Space Center in Merritt Island, Florida, on Aug. 29, or Sept. 2 (the original launch date) or Sept. 5. If NASA cannot resolve the stated technical reason for canceling the launch (a hydrogen leak)within the coming week or if it discovers other obstacles, (which, again, is more than likely), the fuel and oxidizer will have to be drained and the entire structure of the launch vehicle—at a height of 98.1 meters (approximately 322 feet), a vaunted engine thrust of more than 39 mN and a payload of more than 90 tons — will have to be reassembled. And that will take at least another six months of work, under current conditions, that is, which are the most favorable of the possible low-risk “road maps.”

I would be glad, so to speak, if these assessments turned out to be wrong and we all had the opportunity in the coming days to witness a new triumph of the gigantic scientific and technological potential of the United States and its allies. But if for some reason that triumph does not materialize, America’s potential, both present and past, will come into question. For now, it remains intact, most likely by default. But this potential is by no means infinite.

As Aesop’s boastful traveler was told upon returning home and bragging about his incredible long jumps on Rhodes before numerous witnesses, “Hic Rhodes, hic salta!” (“Here is your Rhodes, go on and jump!”); Onward to the moon, America!

About this publication

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply