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What the new Artemis moon program represents for NASA's future


The four astronauts heading to the moon have met the spacecraft that will get them there. The three NASA astronauts and one Canadian are set to launch to the moon on a flyby mission at the end of next year, part of NASA's new moon program called Artemis. From member station WMFE, Brendan Byrne reports the Artemis program represents a turning point in both where NASA is heading and how it's getting there.

BRENDAN BYRNE, BYLINE: At the Operations and Checkout Building at Kennedy Space Center in Florida, the crew of Artemis II stand in front of the Orion spacecraft, the capsule that will take them more than a quarter of a million miles from home to a place no human has been in more than half a century.

VICTOR GLOVER: I mean, looking at this beautiful spacecraft, it's amazing how much hard work has gone into it. And the attention to detail just makes it very clear that they're focused on getting us there, but most important, back safely.

BYRNE: NASA's Victor Glover is piloting the Artemis II mission, along with Commander Reid Wiseman and mission specialists Christina Koch and Canada's Jeremy Hansen. Their spacecraft sits in a massive building, along with two more capsules that are also being readied for future missions to the lunar surface. The operation is run by Orion's prime contractor, Lockheed Martin.

DOUGLAS LENHARDT: Lockheed Martin is a commercial company, right? They're making the spacecraft for NASA. Once they're done, they'll hand it over to NASA, and then NASA will take over the rest of the flight.

BYRNE: Douglas Lenhardt is a supply chain leader for the agency. He says that's basically the same blueprint as the agency's Apollo moon missions, which took astronauts to the moon in the 1960s and '70s. For Artemis, Lockheed is building the capsule, and Boeing is developing the core stage of the rocket that will get it into space.

LENHARDT: So that's the classic NASA old-school way of doing things. The new way is the lunar lander.

BYRNE: The lunar lander, set to fly with the Artemis III mission, will be built on a very different model. NASA won't own that lander. Instead, the agency is asking a commercial partner for a ride to the surface. It's like calling a lunar Uber instead of buying your own moon buggy. The paradigm shift started with the George W. Bush administration as it planned for the future of NASA after the retirement of the Space Shuttle program, which took astronauts to space for three decades, says University of Central Florida history professor Amy Foster.

AMY FOSTER: It was a great program, but it was still flying with, in many ways, 1980s technology. It was time for it to go through.

BYRNE: The Obama and Trump administrations, NASA worked to develop its commercial cargo and crew programs, relying on commercial companies to deliver services, supplies and, in 2020, astronauts to the International Space Station. And now the Artemis program is using that model. And it's paying off, says NASA's Douglas Lenhardt.

LENHARDT: If it makes sense to the government to go the commercial route, we're going to do that 'cause it saves the taxpayers money. And that's, you know - if we can do - if we can go to the moon cheaper, we're going to do it cheaper, you know?

BYRNE: This public-private partnership isn't without risks. NASA's ride to the lunar surface, SpaceX's Starship, is grounded by the FAA after a test flight in April exploded shortly after liftoff. NASA leaders have said the development delay could alter plans for Artemis III, potentially pushing plans to return humans to the surface of the moon by 2025. But other aspects of the partnership are flourishing. SpaceX and NASA are set to launch another four people to the space station later this month. And Boeing is working to develop its own commercial vehicle to launch humans. Artemis II commander Reid Wiseman says when visiting Florida and the Kennedy Space Center, that partnership is hard to miss as commercial rockets take flight at a rate never before seen on the Space Coast.

REID WISEMAN: That is really a great testament to the trajectory that we have set with the entire private-public partnership of space.

BYRNE: And that partnership continues to grow beyond Earth. NASA is relying on commercial companies to help establish a permanent presence on the lunar surface.

For NPR News, I'm Brendan Byrne at the Kennedy Space Center.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Brendan Byrne