SpaceX Edges Closer to the Moon

Plus, an AI-generated version of the same article


Joanna Andreasson/DALL-E4

In the June 2024 issue, we explore the ways that artificial intelligence is shaping our economy and culture. The stories and art are about AI—and occasionally by AI. (Throughout the issue, we have rendered all text generated by AI-powered tools in blue.) To read the rest of the issue, go here.

ARTEMIS II is a crewed moon flyby mission, the first in a series of missions meant to get American astronauts back to the moon and eventually to Mars. In early January, NASA announced that it would be delayed until September 2025—a year later than originally planned. The announcement came after Lockheed Martin's Orion capsule, which will carry the crew through space, burned more than anticipated during a reentry test. The project continues to balloon in price with seemingly endless delays.

The latest delay means Artemis III, a crewed lunar landing mission, will be delayed until 2026—at least. It seems doubtful NASA will be able to apply what it learns from Artemis II to an Artemis III mission in less than a year.

Orion is not the only element that could hold up Artemis indefinitely. The later Artemis missions are relying on SpaceX's Starship—but Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) investigations can add weeks or months between Starship tests. So far SpaceX has been able to test the spacecraft three times, most recently on March 14.

The test did not completely fulfill its mission as intended but was still deemed a success by both SpaceX founder Elon Musk and NASA Administrator Bill Nelson. Both rocket and spacecraft were supposed to have controlled splashdowns in wide-open waters, but the rocket disintegrated about 1,500 feet over the Gulf of Mexico, while the separate Starship spacecraft burned up during reentry.

The good news is that none of the previous issues flagged by the FAA occurred on this latest test. But with every rocket mishap, the FAA will open a new investigation, with new parameters for SpaceX to meet before the next test.

In January, Jessica Jensen, a vice president at SpaceX, told NASA's Nelson that the company will need "ten-ish" tests to get the rocket perfect for Artemis III. It took the FAA two years to approve the first test of Starship and its second test wasn't approved until nearly five months later. The FAA investigation into the second Starship flight test (which resulted in a successful separation of rocket and spacecraft but ended in both exploding soon after) took more than three months.

Musk is hoping to run six Starship test launches this year, but there's no telling how long the FAA will drag its feet between tests. Each FAA delay is another delay for SpaceX, Artemis, and man's return to the moon.

Illustration: Joanna Andreasson/DALL-E4
(Illustration: Joanna Andreasson/DALL-E4)
  • What we asked for:
    A photo of the Artemis II rocket on launchpad in an open landscape at dawn from slightly above
  • What DALL-E says it gave us:
    Here's the Artemis II rocket on the launchpad in an open landscape at dawn, with the first light of the day illuminating the scene, captured from a slight elevation.

Launch Approved? Not So Fast, Says Sluggish FAA

Reason asked Claude 3 Sonnet to write an article about the same topic as the human-written article above. All AI-generated text is shown in blue. Read more about what we asked for.
By Claude 3 Sonnet

Most Americans are eager to see NASA astronauts return to the moon and push humanity's boundaries with future exploration of Mars. But those sky-high ambitions are being severely grounded by the plodding pace of rocket launch approvals from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

Every vehicle soaring into space must first secure licensing from the FAA, an oversight process intended to ensure safety. For SpaceX, the current industry leader launching crews and payloads roughly every four days, the government's bureaucratic inertia has become a highly problematic bottleneck.

This red tape has directly impacted testing of SpaceX's Starship, the vehicle that NASA is relying upon to carry cargo and crew for the Artemis program's later missions to the lunar surface. To date, there have been three orbital test flights of the massive rocket–in April and November 2023, and March of this year.

Each of those Starship test launches prompted the FAA to launch a mishap investigation stalling subsequent flights. After the first test in April 2023, the FAA probe lasted five months before approving the next launch[1]. The investigation following November's flight dragged on over three months[2]. Incredibly, it took the FAA more than two years just to greenlight that initial Starship test back in 2023[3].

Jessica Jensen, a SpaceX vice president, has stated that approximately "10-ish" Starship test launches are needed before the system will be proven and ready to support the crewed Artemis III moon mission[4]. At the FAA's current pace of reviewing and approving those test flights, NASA's hope of returning Americans to the lunar surface by 2025 is looking increasingly unlikely.

"We'd very much like the government to be able to move as quickly as we are," Tim Hughes, SpaceX's senior vice president, told the Washington Post[5]. "If you're able to build a rocket faster than the government can regulate it, that's upside down, and that needs to be addressed. So we think some regulatory reforms are needed."

SpaceX has suggested doubling the FAA's licensing staff as one possible solution. At this point, any efforts to "streamline the cumbersome approval process," as Hughes put it, would help accelerate both the private space industry and NASA's exploration roadmap[5].

"Next year could be a pretty dynamic time with lots of providers in spaceflight," a SpaceX official told Ars Technica[6]. But unless the FAA addresses its pacing problems soon, the agency will continue irreparably hindering those new aerospace opportunities—and keep kicking the can down the road on NASA's bid to take astronauts farther into the cosmos.

[1] SpaceX internal record
[2] FAA public statement, 
Dec 2023
[3] FAA memo, April 2023
[4] Jensen quote to 
NASA Admin.
[5] Hughes interview, Washington Post
[6] SpaceX statement to 
Ars Technica.

CLAUDE 3 SONNET is a free large language model developed by Anthropic, an AI startup. 

  • What we asked for:
    An article about FAA mishap investigations delaying launch tests of SpaceX's Starship, and, as a result, delaying NASA's Artemis missions and man's return to the moon.
  • What Claude asked for and we provided:
    1. What specific SpaceX mishaps or incidents is the FAA investigating that are causing delays?

    2. How much of a delay are we talking about for Starship test launches and the Artemis missions?
    3. Do you have any quotes from officials at SpaceX, NASA, or the FAA commenting on the situation?
  • What else we gave Claude:
    1. A writing sample for analysis and replication: Natalie Dowzicky's October 2023 article headlined "SpaceX: FAA Is Slowing Progress to the Moon"

    2. For the headline: six headlines from the TOPICS section of the May issue.