Artemis vs. Apollo: The Reason Behind America’s Huge Investment in Private Space Exploration

The reputation of Intuitive Machines will be tested when its Nova-C spaceship launches atop a SpaceX rocket on Wednesday. This launch comes after recent successful touchdowns by China, India, and Japan. The decision to entrust commercial sector with such tasks, despite past failures, stems from NASA’s reorganisation for its Artemis program. NASA’s new approach relies on the market economy to deliver breakthroughs at a fraction of historic costs. This strategy, however, risks the United States falling behind China in achieving major space milestones.

NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) initiative builds on the success of SpaceX. SpaceX, once viewed as reckless, is now a vital contractor for NASA. The company’s reliability, according to Scott Pace, a former member of the National Space Council, came from multiple rocket failures. SpaceX launches are currently the only means for astronauts to launch from US soil, after the termination of the NASA-led space shuttle program in 2011.

The shift from NASA’s Apollo era to the Artemis program involves drastic changes in budget and approach. During the Apollo era, NASA was given over $300 billion, whereas only $93 billion will be spent by 2025 on Artemis. NASA now purchases services from companies instead of dictating what to build. This approach, while cost-effective, carries certain drawbacks. For instance, while NASA owns the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and the Orion crew capsule, it has contracted SpaceX for an unproven landing system based on Starship rocket.

China, on the other hand, has set a deadline of 2030 for its own crewed landing and has recently been consistent with its promises. The country’s approach differs from the US, avoiding the extreme polarization, government shutdown threats, and continuing resolutions that the US often faces. Despite the challenges, America remains committed to its public-private partnership model, as exemplified by the Artemis program. This program was designed with international partnerships to prevent it from being scrapped. A Moon-to-Mars program like Apollo, called Constellation, was cancelled in the 2000s due to budget constraints, reinforcing the need for the current approach.

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