Can NASA launch two Artemis missions to the moon per year?

The Creating Helpful Incentives to Produce Semiconductors (CHIPS) Act, designed to create a domestic American microchip industry, also includes the bare bones of a NASA authorization bill. The NASA part of the CHIPS Act includes several provisions, not the least of which is a strongly worded suggestion concerning the launch rate for the Space Launch System (SLS). 

Space News reports, “The bill directs NASA to launch the SLS annually after the first successful crewed launch of Orion, which would be the Artemis 2 mission no earlier than 2024, going to two missions a year ‘to the extent practicable’ after the first crewed lunar landing.”

The suggestion would solve a problem driven by the previous NASA plan to launch the SLS once a year, a pause-in approach to lunar surface expeditions while the massive, heavy-lift rocket is used to build the Lunar Gateway. If the SLS could be launched twice a year, then one could be dedicated to the Lunar Gateway and the other to sending astronauts to the moon’s surface. Considering the enormous cost of launching the SLS, can NASA actually do what Congress wants it to do?

NASA’s Office of the Inspector General has estimated that an SLS/Orion mission to the moon will cost $4.1 billion at least through Artemis IV. NASA thinks it can lower that cost on subsequent flights to something between $1.5 billion to $1 billion per flight. Even so, an analysis by Motley Fool, a stock investment and analysis firm, suggests that the SLS will be unsustainable and will result either in Artemis’ cancellation or a switch to a commercial system (like the SpaceX Starship) to access the lunar surface.

A reasonable policy would be to plan a shift away from the SLS to the SpaceX Starship, which is already planned as the Human Landing System, to take astronauts and cargo all the way from the Earth to the moon. But Congress, having mandated the use of the SLS, seems all-in on relying on the launch vehicle. Ironically, Bill Nelson, who as former a United States senator had helped to impose that mandate, is now NASA administrator and thus in charge of making it work.

Three other aspects of the NASA authorization language should be noted, one positive, the other two problematic.

The positive language calls for the establishment of a “Moon to Mars Program Office” with a director responsible for running the Artemis program, starting with the return to the moon and eventually including expeditions to Mars. This office will provide much-needed focus to move Artemis along in a timely, efficient manner.

However, the first troubling aspect of the language is that it provides no guidance for acquiring a second Human Landing System. The $10 billion authorization for the overall lunar landing program that was in an earlier Senate bill is nowhere to be found.

The second problematic language, according to Space Policy Online, “explicitly states that each Artemis mission must demonstrate or advance a technology or operational concept that will enable human missions to Mars.“ The language has caused alarm among return-to-the-moon advocates who feel that such a focus on Mars would tend to shortchange the goals of establishing a lunar base and beginning lunar economic development, including mining and tourism.

The good news is that everything that astronauts need to do to get to and explore Mars would justify a permanent lunar base. Mars explorers will have to live off of local resources to survive. So will astronauts living and working on a moon base.

Moreover, as a study conducted by MIT suggested, making the moon a refueling stop would greatly save on the amount of weight that would have to be boosted from Earth to supply a human Mars mission. A lunar refueling station would refine water into liquid hydrogen and oxygen and then deploy a refueling stop at one of the Lagrange Points where the gravitational pulls of the moon and Earth cancel each other out. The Mars ship would dock at the refueling stop, top off its tanks, and then proceed to Mars.

A future NASA authorization bill should specifically mandate a lunar base as well as set out a commercial alternative for the SLS. But that will be the task for a future Congress and, likely, a future president.

Mark R. Whittington is the author of space exploration studies “Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon?” as well as “The Moon, Mars and Beyond,” and “Why is America Going Back to the Moon?” He blogs at Curmudgeons Corner.