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NASA’s Artemis I spacecraft was supposed to head to the moon earlier this week. But after suffering a technical error it had to be delayed until Saturday afternoon.
It’s been nearly 50 years since the last Apollo landing, and the landscape for space exploration has changed drastically since then. One obvious update? This ship has no crew (for now). NASA hopes that later Artemis missions will eventually return humans on the moon.
Efficiency, costs, and motivations for the mission have been brought into question leading up to the launch. Lori Garver was the deputy administrator of NASA during the Obama administration and joined All Things Considered to shed light on the process, and the future of humans in space.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
On the purpose of the mission
Within the space community, this has been something they wanted to do since they left the moon. And I think one of the reasons we haven’t, is because we haven’t answered that question [of why they took such a long hiatus]. Today, NASA says it’s because we’re in a race with China, but of course, we’ve won that race six times. So I think the space program is incredibly valuable and the things that we are doing have helped humanity tremendously. Going back to the moon is, I think, a positive path, but I don’t think we have well articulated the purpose for spending the amounts of money that are now required.
On the impact of private space exploration companies
Private space companies are actually part of this mission. Of course, they were part of Apollo as well. Space X has a contract with them to build the lunar lander, but they are also building a large launch vehicle that could get us there for a fraction of the cost of the government owned and operated planned systems that have taken more than a decade and tens of billions of dollars. So this isn’t an either-or.
On the delayed launch of Artemis 1, and other challenges
Well, it’s not just this latest setback that is an issue. It’s emblematic of why a program that was supposed to take five years has now taken nearly 12. And that was supposed to cost $20 billion, has cost $43 billion. That is something that I don’t understand how the public and their elected representatives will continue to support once there is a private sector option flying.
On what other avenues NASA should expend resources on
I think NASA could go back to the moon for significantly less resources in a way that drives technology, which is what really returns to the nation and the planet. The money that they save for doing that could be spent on priorities like increasing the Earth sciences programs, studying greenhouse gas emissions from space, helping us to manage our resources on this planet. There are a lot of ways NASA’s can contribute to a better world, both here on Earth and beyond.
On how space exploration benefits humans on Earth
We believe they’re inspirational and allow people to invest in themselves and go into fields which help us all. I think there is also a direct return ultimately, and things like being able to detect incoming asteroids. You don’t need humans in space to do that. But it is exploration. And ultimately, we do have to get off of this planet to survive over the longer term. In my view, that is a multigenerational activity and we need to figure out how to last long enough on this planet in order to be to a point where we can expand beyond in a permanent way.
On whether NASA has struggled to keep up with the times
Well, I wrote a book, Escaping Gravity that just came out about this. I think, you know, no one’s bad. It’s just the status quo in Washington. Contractors already have jobs, they’re going to argue for keeping those jobs, their members of Congress want them to keep those jobs. And it just becomes sort of a do-over when, in my view, we weren’t established — we being NASA — to do the same thing again. We are supposed to be driving technologies. And so that’s why I think many of us are critical of this rocket program, because it really is 1970s technology, and that is not the way we think it’s best to go back to the moon.
On the desire to get to Mars
I think within NASA and the some of these private companies, Mars is the ultimate goal. I think that going to the moon is not required before you get to Mars, but it is certainly helpful, and a place where you can learn again to operate at a distance from this planet. I think the goal of getting to Mars for many people is more exciting, but that is an order of magnitude more challenging.
This story was adapted for the web by Manuela Lopez Restrepo.