BREVARD COUNTY, Fla. – The launch team for the Artemis I moon mission headed back to their stations at the Kennedy Space Center Tuesday afternoon to prepare for a final, vital test before the mega rocket is set to launch in a week.
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The tanking test begins at 7 a.m. Wednesday.
NASA Administrator Bill Nelson has said the Artemis program is infinitely more advanced than the Apollo program and even the space shuttle when it comes to technology, but for more than a decade, one of the loudest critics of Artemis has been former NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver.
“NASA’s powerful Space Launch System rocket plays a key role in the agency’s Moon to Mars exploration approach. Like any new development, there have been challenges along the way. However, we now have a rocket that will send astronauts aboard Orion farther in space than ever before, and is the only rocket capable of sending crew to the Moon on early Artemis missions. NASA will fly SLS when it is ready, and when we do, we will unite humanity in deep space exploration as we maintain American leadership in space,” NASA said in a statement.
Garver said the Space Launch System (SLS), the giant rocket and rocket boosters, and Orion capsule that has become known as the Artemis I moon rocket, is not the best we can do.
“It was so difficult to be at NASA during the time of the shuttle retirement,” Garver said. “And I know that I was a named person, blamed for it by many while I was at... Cape (Canaveral).”
Garver was the NASA Deputy Administrator under President Obama from 2009-2013.
Actually, Garver said she did everything she could to add several missions before the space shuttle was retired in 2011.
But what would replace the shuttle, Garver argued, had to be entirely different—not the SLS, which recycles much of the space shuttle.
“I would not say that these delays are unexpected, and it’s unfortunate, but the reason we could have seen this coming is because precisely we saw them with the shuttle program,” Garver said. “And I would say it’s a bug and not a feature.”
More than a decade ago, Garver was among the loudest voices disagreeing with the SLS as the future of NASA’s deep space exploration.
“My point is we’re now using engines that were developed in the 1970s and we recognized all throughout the shuttle program just how finicky they were and how difficult to operate,” Garver said.
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The SLS uses the same RS-25 engines that powered the space shuttle, upgraded at a cost of $110 million each. Effectively, taxpayers purchased the engines twice—once for the space shuttle and a second time to upgrade them.
But when the SLS launches, the engines will not be recycled. Neither will the solid rocket boosters. Nor the external tank.
Only the Orion capsule will land back on Earth.
Garver wrote in her new book, “Escaping Gravity,” that she clashed with former U.S. Senator Bill Nelson, now NASA Administrator Nelson.
At a recent pre-launch press conference, Nelson said further wet dress rehearsals to test the SLS were not needed after a fourth one did not end entirely successfully.
“It’s two different times. That was 50 years ago. Look at the advance of technology,” Nelson said. “And so that’s the difference of 50 years of technology and techniques, computing and all the advances that go into this.”
“No, words matter and you can’t just say this is the most advanced system,” Garver said. “You cannot look at the programs that are flying and ones that are on the books and in test flights and not see that reusability and operability are enhanced by new technology in ways the SLS is not. Just saying it doesn’t make it so.”
As for the hydrogen leaks that have caused launch attempt scrubs, Garver said it’s not a surprise.
“This is a team that hasn’t launched anything for 11 years,” Garver said. “You know, I don’t know what people expected. We continue to defend this as similar to shuttle delays, but I do have to point out, that’s one of the reasons I didn’t think we should be picking this kind of vehicle and something based on that old technology.”
After the most recent scrub earlier this month, Nelson said he had “some personal experience” with the incident because of his ride on the 24th flight of the space shuttle.
“We scrubbed four times on the pad,” Nelson said. “And the fifth try was a flawless mission.”
Garver disagreed again.
“It isn’t a positive to say, ‘Oh, this is happening just like it happened to (the) shuttle,’” Garver said. “Yes, we knew it happened with the shuttle and the idea was to have systems that would be a little bit more robust, routine, and I don’t think that was ever in the cards for the SLS.”
Garver said she feared a decade ago the SLS would end up several years and billions of dollars behind schedule, as it has.
But she also predicts the SLS will continue, even if the upcoming test flight doesn’t go well—and by the way, she hopes it does go well for the sake of the workers and the taxpayers who’ve poured so much into Artemis.
The Artemis program is currently estimated to cost nearly $23 billion and the SLS still hasn’t flown. Each launch, once every two or three years, is estimated to cost around $4 billion.
“It was put in place by the industry that makes money on these contracts and the Congress that is indebted to them and many, many leaders at NASA who were drawn to the agency because they wanted to build a big rocket,” Garver said. “So none of that’s going to change.”
Garver said she has not spoken with Nelson since leaving NASA. Nelson has not read Garver’s book, according to his press secretary.