Artemis I launch attempts signal emotional return to space


Through the Artemis launches and the success of the James Webb telescope, humanity sets its sights back on the stars.

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Image by NASA and STSCI. Cosmic cliffs via JWST.

By Ethan Attwood

Despite the striking fact that most of the scientists that the world has ever known are alive and working today, despite the fact that this Nation’s own scientific manpower is doubling every 12 years in a rate of growth more than three times that of our population as a whole, despite that, the vast stretches of the unknown and the unanswered and the unfinished still far outstrip our collective comprehension.

John F. Kennedy spoke those words at Rice University on 12 September 1962, marking a pivotal moment in American space exploration. The US was to invest $5.4 billion a year in the space program (equivalent to $48 billion today), largely motivated by competition with the Soviets to conquer one of the few remaining frontiers, and thus prove capitalism to be the superior ideology. Less than 15 months later, Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, never to see the fruits of his astral ambition. While the Americans eventually finished second to the USSR in the race for a manned spaceflight, they successfully landed the first human being on the Moon on 20 July, 1969.

Development of space exploration since that monumental point in human evolution has been mixed. While we have continued to achieve scientific victories, particularly in our assessments of Mars and in imaging of deep space, NASA’s budget has continued to fall as a percentage of US federal expenditure. Peaks of 4.4 percent of federal budget and $50 billion in 2021 dollars in 1966 at the zenith of the Apollo program have cratered to less than 0.5 percent and $23 billion in 2021. This has not been entirely catastrophic for space development as a larger proportion of financing has increasingly come from the private sector, totalling a record $14.5 billion in 2021. This caused the global space industry to grow to a valuation of over $400 billion in 2021, a 70 percent increase since 2010. However, private ventures have different priorities to public sector research and development. An open question remains of how much of this market cap will lead to the advancement of humanity to which JFK alluded. Private money can be a necessary support for scientific research, but without a philosophy of feeding less-commercialisable technology into solving the world’s problems, space risks becoming just another playground for the ultra-wealthy. Sub-orbital flights range from $250,000 to $500,000 a seat from Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin. Ceding control of the heavens to billionaires continues a disturbing terrestrial trend.

It is unquestionably good though, that NASA’s recent attempts (and challenges) to launch the Artemis I rocket have brought space exploration back into the public attention. This mission promises a refocus back towards the Moon and taking the first tentative steps toward habitation of other worlds. Similarly, the astounding images recently captured by the James Webb telescope have enchanted both those who know nothing of cosmology, and those who’ve spent their lives in it and now have new information about the origins of the universe.

We choose to go to the Moon. We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organise and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.

NASA has developed a new spacecraft, Orion, designed to carry astronauts to the Moon and beyond. It is attached to a newly designed booster rocket called the Space Launch System, and there are new ground systems at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Collectively, the first unmanned spaceflight test of these components is termed Artemis I. This mission will send Orion 450,000km from Earth, spending longer in space without docking than ever before, deploy ten satellites to orbit the moon before re-entering the atmosphere faster and hotter than any previous spacecraft. If successful, this test will set the stage for Artemis II, which will send a crew of astronauts to the Moon to begin deploying equipment for lunar surface exploration, and ultimately prove our capabilities to eventually walk on Mars. This means validating that Orion’s cutting edge heat shielding can withstand temperatures close to 3000 degrees, generated by the friction of reentering the atmosphere at 40,000kph. While the flight path of the spacecraft is constantly monitored, retrieving the capsule at the end of the flight is also a challenge, with scientists hoping to land it in the pacific ocean near to a US Navy cruiser.

Artemis I has had a haggard schedule. The first scheduled launch on 29 August was first delayed an hour by off-shore storms, then by an unacceptably high engine temperature among other minor faults. The launch was finally cancelled after their two-hour window expired, although the engine temperature was eventually traced to a malfunctioning sensor. A second attempt was made four days later, but also cancelled due to a leak in a liquid hydrogen fuel line. Despite repairing the leak, a new launch date has not yet been confirmed.

Public attention was also captured earlier this year after the first images were released from the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). Launched on Christmas Day 2021, the state-of-the-art satellite was designed to replace the ageing Hubble Telescope and provide the highest-quality images of deep space we have ever seen, some striking examples of which are featured in this article. As well as the major insights into the birth of the universe these images have yielded, the legacy of space exploration impacts our lives every day in technology emergent from space programs: GPS, LED lighting, freeze-dried food, memory foam and myriad advances in computing and wireless communication.

The astounding images from JWST show objects from such a vast distance away that the light has been travelling for millions of years. This means we are literally looking into the past, imbuing deep space telescopes with a majesty befitting modern time machines. This provides critical insight into how stars and galaxies form, and what our universe could have looked like at the very beginning. Some images can also show gravitational lensing, a phenomenon where light is bent by gravity into a curved path, distorting how we perceive the image. Legendary physicist Albert Einstein predicted this effect when authoring his groundbreaking theory of general relativity. While there was some experimental validation of this principle, the first gravitational lens was not discovered until 1979. It should be the goal of today that the scientists of tomorrow do not lack the tools to observe their brainchildren.

Of JFK’s many insights, perhaps the most hopeful, inspired and poignant was his belief in the heavens to provide for one tiny blue orb. Accompanying that faith was another in us to firmly grasp the knowledge within our now-considerably expanded reach.

Many years ago the great British explorer George Mallory, who was to die on Mount Everest, was asked why did he want to climb it. He said, “Because it is there.” Well, space is there, and we’re going to climb it, and the Moon and the planets are there, and new hopes for knowledge and peace are there. And, therefore, as we set sail we ask God’s blessing on the most hazardous and dangerous and greatest adventure on which man has ever embarked.

– John F. Kennedy, 12 September 1962

Centaurus A. Image courtesy NASA and STSCI.