The hoopla around the recent launch of Artemis to the Moon has me conflicted.
The good side is that NASA is actually trying to do something other than send people to an orbiting tin can that is not suitable for humans, because prolonged stay there leaves them debilitated. Articles about this always frame it is “space travel is unhealthy”, but really it is the absence of gravity in the space station that is the main problem.
If we want to build a space station, let’s do it for real — not fake it. Let’s fish or cut bait. Here is a video that explains some of the challenges in creating a real space station with rotating rings for gravity, and guess what? They are very surmountable now that SpaceX has given us inexpensive heavy lift to orbit capability!
In a recent weekly Nature podcast, it was reported that when Artemis took off, it was the largest rocket that we have. Artemis’s thrust is 8,800,000 lb. The thrust of the SpaceX Falcon Heavy is 3,400,000 lb, so Artemis has the Falcon Heavy beat. But let’s look at costs:
Each launch of Artemis costs more than $4 billion. That’s right: each launch costs four billion dollars. Four friggin’ billion dollars per launch.
It is expensive partly because of the old-style government contracting model that they use, which has been shown to be ten times as expensive as it should be; but it is also expensive because it is less than 1% reusable: except for the tiny capsule way at the top, the entire thing either burns up in the atmosphere or falls into the ocean. What a waste.
What does that say about how feasible Artemis is as a system for going to the Moon and back on a regular basis?
It tells us that Artemis is yet another Apollo-like stunt, rather than a practical solution that will enable us to create an maintain bases on the Moon. At $4 billion per launch, Artemis is just too expensive — way, way, way, way too expensive, like out of the ballpark too expensive for frequent trips.
In contrast, the cost of a SpaceX Falcon Heavy launch is about $97 million. Their payload capacities are different: the payload capacity of Artemis is about 209,000 lb to low Earth orbit. Falcon Heavy can lift about 141,000 lb to low Earth orbit. Thus, Artemis can lift 1.4 times what Falcon Heavy can lift, but each Artemis launch costs at least 40 times as much — that is almost 30 times as expensive on a per-pound basis.
And then there is the SpaceX Starship system, which SpaceX is developing right now. It’s 100% reusable, and its projected cost to orbit is about $2 million for about 300,000 lbs of payload — substantially more capacity than Artemis but two thousand times cheaper!
Two thousand times cheaper! Because it is fully reusable, like an airplane.
So when I see Artemis rising on a plume of flames, it takes me back to 1969, when we did that once before. Exactly that, 53 years ago. Been there, done that. Nothing new here. Yawn. Shaking my head at the waste, the stupidity, the absurdity, the charade.
SpaceX’s approach is the future. Artemis’s approach is the past.