How NASA’s Artemis I Engine Problems Can Help the U.S. Change its Trajectory in Space
The Artemis I program, part of NASA’s long-term goal to establish a human presence on the moon, captured the country’s interest leading up to the planned launches of the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket – a launch that has since been scrubbed twice over the past several weeks due to engine-related issues (and once again due to weather).
Scrubs are common, but we hope these delays shine a light on a smoother, faster, and less expensive path for the U.S. government, NASA, and commercial launch companies to pursue their future missions.
The world has changed, and so has rocket propulsion
The four engines on the SLS are decades old and have been used on multiple missions. While these engines were based on generation-defining technology in their time, the world has changed, and so has rocket propulsion.
Today’s world-class propulsion systems draw from core engine technology used on the SLS engines, as well as other engine programs from the same era developed by American and Soviet engineers. However, new engines also take advantage of significant technology advancements, beginning at the initial concept phase through full-scale production. For example:
Cloud computing: Today, companies of any size can affordably harness massive computing power through cloud services like AWS to develop their own technologies and products. In the case of rocket propulsion, the difference is engines based on thousands of design and testing iterations calculated in real time, vs. mid-century designs based on a small number of computer-aided or even hand-calculated iterations.
3D printing: Also known as “additive manufacturing,” we can now produce entire engines in a single week, while tweaking designs and re-engineering components in real time and at a low cost. 3D printing also lets us simplify manufacturing processes, which decreases the likelihood of failure.
Novel alloys: In 1984, the U.S. developed a burn-resistant superalloy that let us pursue the oxygen-rich staged combustion engine architecture preferred for its performance and reliability. Previously, only Russian-made engines used this engine architecture. Since then, companies have continued to build on this technology to create their own proprietary alloys that achieve even higher burn-resistance, strengths, and temperature limits.
Alternative fuels: Liquid hydrogen is an extremely high-performing fuel, and for some missions is the right choice. When used with modern systems, it can be cost effective and operationally efficient. However, for missions with requirements like those of Artemis I, hydrogen just isn’t necessary. We can opt for staged-combustion engines that run on kerosene or methane and liquid oxygen. These fuels have much simpler operational requirements, a speedier development process, are significantly less expensive, and will do the job.
These technology advancements, combined with the operational agility and focus of the New Space economy, have resulted in higher performing, more reliable engines that take months, not years, to build at a fraction of the cost.
So why the old engines?
It’s complicated. NASA kicked off Artemis I in 2011 with a $10 billion budget and a target launch date of 2016. SLS would be used for multiple Artemis missions, each with widely varying requirements.
At that time, the New Space economy was just emerging, and there weren’t any newer, commercially available rocket engines available. Building new engines from scratch would have taken even longer and cost more money. All things considered, opting for existing engines back then was a reasonable decision.
Looking ahead to future missions
While Artemis I is doing its best with what it has, the U.S. government, NASA, and commercial launchers have new options as they plan and budget for future missions. This includes modern, higher-performing propulsion solutions on-demand, and at a fraction of the cost.
Companies like Blue Origin and SpaceX began a privately funded renaissance of space innovation at the dawn of the 21st century. Not only did Blue and SpaceX prove that private companies could lead the industry, they also proved to the U.S. government that partnering with “startups” pays off.
More recently, entrepreneurs who cut their teeth under the leadership of Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk have established their own companies to meet high demand for low-cost, highly reliable, frequent launches. These companies, like Ursa Major, are partnering on various government programs with early success.
A new model for public-private collaboration
Recent commercial innovation in the U.S. gives us the ability to let go of legacy technology and programs, even those with short-term appeal. If the U.S. is going to regain its leadership in space, whether it’s human presence on the moon, or Mars, or satellites to deliver high-speed internet and manage climate change, we need to put our mid-century space artifacts in museums and corporate lobbies, not on the launch pad.
The newly formed partnerships among government, prime contractors, and New Space companies should become standard for the largest and most strategic programs, not reserved for niche, innovation-specific initiatives alone. Large companies that organize around new programs and technology will delight their employees and deliver long-term, durable growth for shareholders, while New Space collaborators will benefit from their experience and infrastructure.
Together, government and industry can write the next chapter of American innovation and success by combining the best technology, teams, and practices for all aspects of space launch.
If we do, NASA will remain one of the most inspiring agencies in the history of the U.S. government, motivating kids in America and worldwide to pursue aerospace studies and careers, just like it did me, my father, and the generation before him.
In the meantime, we're looking forward to a successful Artemis I launch and wishing the best for the hundreds of people working hard to make it so.
Main image: NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) rocket with the Orion spacecraft aboard is seen atop a mobile launcher at Launch Pad 39B, Wednesday, Aug. 17, 2022, after being rolled out to the launch pad at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Image credit: NASA/Joel Kowsky