We Are Going to the Moon

Thanks to the rise of private spaceflight companies, mankind will have a future off-Earth.


Following 11 years in which the space agency has had no launch capability of its own, NASA will soon attempt to fly its huge Space Launch System (SLS) booster for the first time. A few minutes after liftoff, the Orion spacecraft will separate from the rocket and zip into orbit around the moon for more than a month. No astronauts will be on board this much delayed initial flight. But on later flights, some will.

NASA has heavily promoted this first Artemis mission as a return to human moon missions. Because Artemis superficially resembles the Apollo Program, it would be easy to dismiss it as a mere rehash. The SLS looks a lot like the Saturn V that launched six Apollo missions to the surface of the moon. And while the Orion spacecraft is roomier and hosts modern avionics in its guts, in essence it is a larger version of the Apollo capsule. Our Chinese rivals mocked NASA for just striving to relive past glories, and even President Barack Obama in 2010 denigrated the idea of returning human beings to the moon as "been there, done that." Buzz Aldrin, the second man to set foot on the moon, sat in the front row as Obama said that, fuming quietly.

But Artemis is different. NASA's new space exploration plan is beginning as the agency starts to embrace the commercial space industry. Although the big SLS rocket and Orion were funded more than a decade ago through cost-plus contracts designed to reward such familiar corporate partners as Boeing and Lockheed Martin, more recent deals have gone through a genuinely competitive award process.

Significantly, in April 2021 Elon Musk's SpaceX beat a handful of serious competitors for a $2.89 billion contract to use its futuristic, silvery Starship vehicle to land astronauts on the moon. While Orion and SLS can take prospective moonwalkers to lunar orbit, NASA still needed a lander to carry humans to and from the surface. In a striking contrast with its earlier contracts, SpaceX did not create Starship at NASA's request. The company built the large rocket to one day fly human beings to Mars, an audacious but no longer insurmountable goal. SpaceX had invested billions in the project by the time NASA expressed interest in using the vehicle to ferry astronauts down to the moon from lunar orbit. Because SpaceX had invested so much already in Starship, NASA was able to buy a service—lunar landings—for a fraction of what other companies were offering.

NASA has a legitimate chance to return to the moon sustainably because private companies began competing with it and/or selling it services. That is probably the only way the U.S. will ever go back. NASA isn't about to return to its halcyon days when it had a work force of 200,000 and was spending 5 percent of the federal budget. After six lunar landings, in 1972 President Richard Nixon decided that America had more than honored its commitment to President John F. Kennedy's legacy of landing a man on the moon before the end of the 1960s. As Nixon directed the space agency to scale back its ambition, NASA's budget fell to less than 1 percent of federal spending. Today it is less than one-half of 1 percent.

Apollo's extravagant cost is just one of the reasons no human being has flown more than a few hundred miles off Earth's surface in half a century. One must know all the reasons NASA stopped trying to get to the moon if one is to understand how the Artemis Program is different from Apollo—and more importantly, why, thanks to private enterprise, it has a chance to succeed.

How NASA Lost its Boost

In 1972, Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt stared across a desolate lunar surface with a sense of regret. The two Apollo 17 astronauts knew that theirs would be NASA's final mission to the moon for a while.

Still, they didn't think it would be decades before a new generation of space travelers followed in their gray and dusty footsteps. Before he climbed into the Lunar Module for the final time, Cernan radioed back to Earth that people would return to the moon "not too long into the future." But he was wrong. When he died in 2017 at age 82, Cernan was still the last man to have been on the moon.

Why was Cernan's wish unfulfilled? Mainly because there was no strong reason to go back. Apollo's great goal was not a detailed exploration of the moon, nor to let us establish a permanent presence beyond the close confines of low Earth orbit. Apollo was driven by strictly geopolitical aims, reversing a series of Soviet firsts in space starting in 1957 with Sputnik.

Moscow's propaganda machine trumpeted each Soviet space flight as further evidence of the benefits of its culture and form of government. In 1960, Gallup's polls showed large majorities in countries one might think sympathetic to the United States—including Great Britain, France, and West Germany—thinking the USSR would lead the world in science during the 1960s.

Kennedy decided to combat that by besting the Soviets in space. In pledging to go to the moon, he picked a goal that was just barely doable, was certain to create a global splash, and, critically, was far enough into the future that it would give NASA time to catch up to Russia's space program.

That is precisely what happened, and Apollo 11 was a geopolitical triumph. Yet almost immediately after Neil Armstrong and Aldrin splashed down in the Pacific, Apollo's strategic importance began to fade.

Only a few years later, Washington and Moscow started to regard space less as a place for grandstanding and competition and more as a venue for wary cooperation. In the summer of 1975, NASA's Apollo spacecraft docked with a Soviet Soyuz capsule in low Earth orbit. Two decades later, the Americans and the Russians trusted each other enough to embark on a major extraterrestrial construction project, the International Space Station (ISS).

Space no longer ranked high on the list of national priorities, and NASA's human spaceflight ambitions contracted along with the buying power of its budget. Over the years, some U.S. senators have debated whether NASA should continue a human spaceflight program at all, given all the problems on Earth. Even the venerable space shuttle was almost canceled. President Jimmy Carter only managed to get the funding needed for cost overruns by pushing NASA to accommodate U.S. spy satellites and other military payloads on the vehicle.

In the years following Apollo, there were two major American efforts to reignite a manned space exploration program. The first came in 1989, when President George H.W. Bush grandly announced the Space Exploration Initiative on the 20th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. This would have sent astronauts to the moon and then to Mars. But NASA's senior administrators were not convinced of the plan's viability, fearing that their existing programs might be cut for what they viewed as a quixotic venture. They preferred to continue flying the space shuttle, which had only made its debut eight years earlier, and pressing ahead with a large space station in low Earth orbit. Congress, too, was uncertain about the program—and it outright revolted when NASA's own estimate pegged the cost of Bush's plan at half a trillion dollars.

So NASA concentrated on using the space shuttle to build the ISS. The project was approaching the halfway mark when tragedy struck in 2003, as space shuttle Columbia fell apart during re-​entry into Earth's atmosphere. President George W. Bush directed NASA to complete the station by 2010 and then to retire the space shuttle, which clearly was not as safe as advertised. Bush also used this moment to push NASA to develop the technology needed to land astronauts on the moon again. He wanted this Orion spacecraft ready to carry people into space by 2014, and he wanted a powerful rocket to launch astronauts to the moon by 2020.

The ISS was finished, and the shuttle was scuttled. But Bush's larger space ambitions, which came to be known as the Constellation program, foundered. Manned missions to the moon and beyond require a significant commitment in funding, and a willingness to stand by the program over years of development. The Obama administration correctly diagnosed the program's failings and moved to cancel it in early 2010.

MISSION to Nowhere

By then, NASA was four decades removed from Apollo's heyday. In the early years, the agency had been filled with purpose and staffed largely by 20-somethings; now it was a big, aging bureaucracy. NASA has 10 field centers across the country, each competing for its share of the budget and each with its own congresspeople working to corral those funds. Congress may pay lip service to the agency's exploration aims, but the legislative focus is on directing dollars to key field centers and contractors. These priorities often conflict with the broader national strategy set by the White House.

The challenge for a president interested in a grand vision for spaceflight is making a case for it. The Apollo astronauts found an airless, dusty world on the surface of the moon. There is even less economic justification for going to Mars—it's far more difficult to reach, and in terms of habitability it makes the summit of Mount Everest look like Hawaii. NASA's primary argument for lunar and Martian missions is science. Human beings certainly can do more science than rovers can, but robotic missions cost about 1 percent of what human missions cost. And the recent discoveries by NASA's Perseverance and Curiosity rovers are not screaming out for human hands to follow along immediately. Indeed, some scientists are concerned about the microbes that people would inevitably bring to Mars, and their potential to contaminate investigations for past or present life.

So advocates for manned missions often fall back on softer justifications, such as the human drive to explore and expand our horizons. Such appeals have not moved most Americans, who in survey after survey rank studying Earth and protecting the planet from asteroid strikes far higher than sending astronauts to the moon and Mars.

Although the White House appoints the NASA administrator, key decision makers at the agency are civil servants who have spent decades at the agency and may work to protect existing programs. They have allies in the field center directors, who also want to maximize their branch's budget and work force. Finally, there is the inevitable battle within NASA between human exploration and science, with scientists concerned (with good reason) that the extra money needed for manned spaceflight will lead to delays or cancellations of robotic probes.

The traditional space contractors, such as Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and Northrop Grumman, also have strong incentives to protect a status quo that benefits their bottom lines through long-term cost-plus contracts. These companies will not hesitate to employ their considerable lobbying power when the White House proposes changes that might shake up the existing order.

Nor do the advocates of manned missions agree on what the goal of such a program should be. One group argues that NASA has unfinished business on the moon and that the agency should return us there on a sustained basis—not just for flags and footprints, but for eventual settlement. The other group, sometimes called the "Mars mafia," contends that it is best to skip the moon and focus entirely on sending astronauts to Mars.

Persuading all of these disparate constituencies, with very different agendas, to align behind a common goal is a huge challenge. Still, after the Constellation program's 2010 cancellation, Congress and its allies in the traditional space industry pulled together to gin up another new federal effort in space. They reinstated the Orion and devised a new rocket, the SLS, that would almost job-for-job keep the old space shuttle work force gainfully employed. Since 2011, with bipartisan support, Congress has lavished about $4 billion annually on the rocket, the spacecraft, and their related ground systems. Obama's space team eventually went along with this plan after receiving a pittance—about a tenth of the annual funding for SLS and Orion—to develop the commercial crew program to replace the space shuttle with private vehicles.

While Obama was an effective champion for commercializing the space industry, his administration never figured out what to do with SLS and Orion. Those programs consumed so much of NASA's budget that there was no money to spend on the payloads and missions that would actually use the machinery. So NASA developed the concepts of sending astronauts to visit an asteroid and later Mars. But these were Potemkin programs. NASA was on a mission to nowhere.

Commercial Space Business Takes Off

Under President Donald Trump, the country's space portfolio was given to Vice President Mike Pence. Breaking with tradition, he took the responsibility seriously, showing a genuine interest in something previous vice presidents had considered a third-tier priority.

Pence tapped a professor from George Washington University, Scott Pace, to serve as executive secretary of the National Space Council; he picked a former pilot and congressman, Jim Bridenstine, to serve as NASA administrator. All three agreed that NASA should drop its fanciful visions of Mars and instead focus its near-term ambitions on the moon.

They had several reasons for this. For one, they recognized China's serious interest in landing its own astronauts on the moon by around 2030, and they wanted to make sure an American-led coalition got there first. NASA's international partners, too, were more interested in the moon than any other destination, having missed out on the Apollo program.

Another major disruptive influence had emerged within NASA's orbit in the last 10–15 years. Musk's SpaceX and Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin have brought billions of dollars into the space industry. This "new space" sector has become an increasingly powerful force within policy making by offering to sell services to NASA at a far lower cost than before. This has given them a voice in setting space priorities. And they were game for a return to the moon as well, with some companies already starting to work out business plans for the lunar surface.

Finally, scientists were becoming increasingly certain that water ice existed in permanently shadowed regions of the moon's poles. Water on the moon could be worth its weight in gold for rocket fuel and other purposes.

Pence formally announced the government's intentions during a 2019 space policy speech at Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama. Pence set a goal of landing astronauts on the moon by 2024, and he said NASA must proceed with "urgency" if it is to achieve that aim. Pence also called out the SLS rocket for delays and cost overruns, and he said NASA needed a "major course correction." NASA, he argued, should buy from the commercial space industry when possible.

"I call on NASA to adopt new policies and embrace a new mindset," Pence said. "If our current contractors can't meet this objective, then we'll find ones that will."

By then, America's commercial space industry was the envy of the world. SpaceX had begun to demonstrate rapid, reusable rockets. A year later, it would also become the first private company to fly astronauts into orbit, relieving NASA of the embarrassment of relying on Russia for that service. In the wake of SpaceX's success, more than a dozen U.S. companies were building credible launch systems; still more were working on in-space transportation and small, medium, and large landers for cargo and people on the moon.

This new industry was very different from the contractors that had built the Apollo and space shuttle rockets. Musk, Bezos, and other entrepreneurs had invested their own money or, if they did not have individual wealth, raised seed funding from venture capitalists and other sources. They did not merely build hardware to NASA specifications, and they did not build it solely after being awarded contracts. NASA, in turn, started talking about being "one of many" customers for this new private space hardware.

The road has been rocky, and some space companies have already gone bankrupt. But many more are finding success, and NASA is in the midst of a major transformation: from telling industry what to build and then paying a steep fiscal price for oversight of those programs, to telling industry what it wants (such as low-cost transportation to the ISS) and then getting out of the way and letting businesses innovate.

And private space companies are doing just that. SpaceX remains the biggest success story. NASA never asked for any of its contractors to build reusable rockets. Indeed, it was hesitant to put its cargo and crew missions on board such vehicles initially. The space agency would also not pay more for the development costs, a dealbreaker for most aerospace companies. But Musk knew that the only pathway to a vibrant future in space involved bringing down the cost of access, and that the only way to achieve this was by making spaceflight operations as much like the airline industry as possible.

So he invested time and money into reuse, building prototypes in Texas, and crashing nearly 20 rockets into the Atlantic Ocean before finally landing the company's first booster in December 2015. A little more than a year later SpaceX re-flew one of its Falcon 9 first stages for the first time, lofting a 5-ton communications satellite into geostationary orbit. At the time Musk called used rockets "flight-proven boosters." Pretty much everyone in the industry snickered behind his back, believing such a statement to be a marketing gimmick. After all, what could be safer than a pristine rocket, fresh from the factory? But Musk has been proven right in the end. The company's final version of the Falcon 9 rocket, optimized for reuse, has completed more than 100 launches without a failure. It already owns the world record for the longest successful launch streak by any rocket, in any era.

A rocket's first stage is the most valuable part of the rocket, carrying about two-thirds of the cost due to the large structure and main engines. After beginning to return its first stages, SpaceX has also learned how to capture and reuse the protective fairing at the top of its boosters, saving an additional $6 million per launch. Entering its third decade at the beginning of the 2020s, SpaceX used this massive advantage over its competitors to start dominating the global launch industry. In 2021, the company launched a record 31 rockets. To accomplish this feat, SpaceX used a grand total of two new Falcon 9 boosters. The rest were re-flights. The company's final launch of the year was also its 100th booster landing.

This year SpaceX is on pace to nearly double its launch total of 2021. Thanks to continued refinements in its procedures to land, refurbish, and re-fly Falcon 9s, Musk's company now has the capability to launch a rocket more than once a week. During some months this year, SpaceX launched more rockets (six) than its nearest U.S. competitor—the United Launch Alliance, formed by old-school NASA contractors—will launch all year. Almost certainly, in 2022, SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket will launch more than any other rocket has in a single year, ever. This is all thanks to an entrepreneur who saw where he believed the global space marketplace should go, not where the government said it would be.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine further highlighted the significance of reuse. After the atrocities in Ukraine became clear, the European Space Agency broke ties with the Russian launch industry, which at that time performed a majority of annual launches for Europe. Moscow's actions also accelerated the U.S. launch industry's move away from Russian engines.

Only SpaceX, with its reusable rocket, had the capacity to pick up the slack after the Western world turned away from Russia's Soyuz and Proton rockets. As a result, SpaceX will in the next two years launch payloads for its biggest customer in satellite internet, OneWeb; for its main competitor in cargo delivery to ISS, Northrop Grumman; and for its primary international competition for commercial launch, the Europe-based Arianespace.

Because of these changes in the commercial and geopolitical landscape, Artemis will be a very different program from Apollo. Precisely because it is different, Artemis has a chance to succeed where the Space Exploration Initiative and the Constellation program failed. Pace, who helped build the framework for Artemis, bears the scars of those two previous efforts.

"I think the reason why Artemis is going to be successful is because of the lessons we took over the previous decades of starts and stops," Pace said during a "Road to Artemis" panel discussion sponsored by Arizona State University in August. "What makes things sustainable is not just an inspiring vision but a direction that aligns with enduring national interests—so new political leadership, new Congresses, and new presidents can come in and pick up the baton and carry on."

That is what is happening with Artemis. Just two weeks into Joe Biden's presidency, his administration endorsed the Artemis plan. It was the first time since Apollo that a human space exploration program survived the transition from one administration to the next. What's more, Congress intends to fully fund Artemis. Canceling the program now would anger international partners, commercial partners, the traditional space industry, and the space community at large. Nearly everyone, therefore, is aligned.

And at some point, commercial spacecraft such as Starship will almost certainly take on a larger role in launching and flying human beings to the moon, superseding the government-owned and-operated SLS rocket and Orion capsule.

The plans will surely change. There will be schedule slips, and there may be accidents. But because the government opened its previously closed system to private visionaries committed to the human future in space, we are going back to the moon.