I watched like millions of others the two aborted countdowns of the Artemis moon rocket on Aug. 29 and Sept. 3, and like millions, I was almost as disappointed as I was relieved. Anything set to launch short of a nuclear-tipped ICBM, you want to see launch. It’s instinctive, even when it’s a mission that by the time it reached pad 39B at Kennedy Space Center, it had cost as much as the entire Apollo program over 13 years, including six crewed missions to the moon’s surface.
Of course that’s unadjusted dollars, a more symbolic indictment. But since we’re still in the earliest stages of this rerun, which feels like watching “Space: 1999,” we don’t have to guess what’s next: $93 billion by 2025 (up from an $86 billion estimate in 2021), and a $4.1 billion-a-launch cost. Conservative estimates put the price tag of the long-range program around $1.5 trillion, and that was in 2015 dollars, or right about the time our wars of discovery in Iraq and Afghanistan had exceeded that cost. Meanwhile private companies like SpaceX and RocketLab USA are light years ahead of the game and putting up rockets for less than the marketing cost of a Hollywood movie.
So putting aside the child-like excitement of a rocket launch, maybe you can understand at least a little bit why the Artemis mission to the moon makes me think of the Iraq war. I’m not exactly sure why we’re going there, or why we’re using yesterday’s technology and yesterday’s thinking (to use The Economist’s characterization) to get there, including space shuttle scraps. When they named it Artemis, they weren’t kidding. In Greek mythology, Artemis is the twin sister of Apollo. No generational leap here. More like arrested development. And who was at the mythological controls, Houston? Artemis, that fanatical virgin, loves children and loves the hunt, but she also has the power to send plagues and sudden death on mortals. Not exactly the most reassuring augury you want as you await liftoff in her quiver.
The question of significance–why are we doing this–seems always to be dismissed as irrelevant, or unanswerable, when it should be the only question. “Reporters repeatedly asked the officials what the true historic significance of the moon landing was” during a news conference just before the Apollo 11 launch in 1969, David Harlberstam writes in his history of the 1950s. “None of the officials had an answer except von Braun. For him the moon shot was one more major step in human evolution. It was comparable, he said, to the moment when life emerged from the sea and established itself on land.”
Wernher von Braun, that Bonhoeffer of rockets, had been Hitler’s engineer of the V-2 missiles that fell on London (the V stood for Vergeltungswaffe–Vengeance Weapon). His Nazism was quickly memory-holed after the war and his itinerary bifurcated from Nuremberg to the United States so he could develop the Pentagon’s ballistic missile program, to which the moon shot was a marketing footnote: keep the kids excited while we build humanity-ending weapons. So all sorts of romantic rationales were fabricated to justify the moon landing–“the dead-center of evolutionary events,” as Buckminster Fuller put it.
But those comparisons are preposterous. As the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr put it the day after the landing, “Many speak of a ‘breakthrough’ but one asks, breakthrough in what? The landing of the moon has been compared to the discovery of the new continent of America. But the moon is dead and barren of all natural and human life; and America was rich in all physical and historic possibilities.” So was earth during the Cambrian explosion of life.
When Artemis III sends a crew to the moon’s surface, that world will still be as dead as a doornail in your attic. Our country’s debt will have grown to around $35 trillion. China will be sipping baijiu cocktails in its own Sea of Tranquility as it picks the American empire apart–not a bad thing in and of itself, but a terribly regressive thing when China is the dead-center of that evolutionary event: Yes, American civilization is more defensible than Chinese totalitarianism, and Artemis is one more example of plundering our own fate.
Science? As President Obama put it in 2010, when he scrubbed his predecessor’s Constellation program, “we’ve been there before. Buzz has been there.” (See above.) There’s nothing scientific to gain by going back there. It wasn’t much of a scientific achievement in 1969 when Neil Armstrong took his giant step. It was a cold war victory to take the sting off our losses a year after Tet in Vietnam. That same year President Nixon considered sending astronauts to Mars by the mid-1980s, when he saw NASA’s budget never exceeding $10 billion. Even that proved too much when he couldn’t safely bring men home from Vietnam. He abandoned the scheme.
There was always that moon rock they brought back. But that was more sublime art than a giant leap for science, more about “treading the soil of the moon,” as Nabokov put it, “palpating its pebbles, tasting the panic and splendor of the event,” than giving National Science Foundation grants a place to go. An unmanned mission could have done the same and much more, at a pebble of the cost.
The same is true today, whether it’s the moon, Mars or any other space candy out there. When it comes to space, manned missions are to unmanned missions what men are to women: there’s nothing women can’t do better. Nothing useful, that is.
Unmanned missions like the two awesome Voyagers, who are still plumbing the depths of deepest space 45 years after launch, or numerous other probes and landings on Mars, Venus and the rest of the Solar System, or the Hubble telescope and James Webb, its recently deployed successor, have been and continue to be like the first chapter of the Book of Genesis, but for real, and on a daily basis. That data keeps coming.
Now we’re retreading the arrogance of the 1960s to make a point and justify the moon landing as a step towards Mars, essentially doubling down on folly when unmanned missions could build a Club Med for Red Planet rovers at a 20th of the cost. But members of Congress in Texas, Alabama and Florida, those paragons of fiscal prudence, have ensured that the Artemis program was well seeded in their districts to continue the pork. Artemis is a jobs program. Yesterday’s jobs.
The mission is already six years late, as over budget as the Pentagon’s toilet seats, no more promising than the space station was a “Motel 6 in low earth orbit,” as Timothy Ferris described that dud-in-the-making in 1998. Artemis is fraught with safety concerns stemming from an agency at once bloated and pressured to cut corners. Do we really want another Challenger disaster? Another Columbia?
The way the moon dashes through clouds that blow
Loosely as cannon-smoke…
Is a reminder of the strength and pain
Of being young; that it can’t come again,
But is for others undiminished somewhere
I don’t think Philip Larkin had our very diminished NASA in mind to pick up that relay. Youthful and Promethean SpaceX, maybe. But not NASA. These delays we’re experiencing, not just those of the last two weeks but the last six years, are telling us something as grave and as portentous as cannon-smoke. We’re only aborting at T minus 40 and still looking forward to an inevitable launch. We should be aborting altogether.