The Blue Origin rocket program funded by billionaire Jeff Bezos has been grounded. When Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocketexploded shortly after takeoff on September 12, the live coverage was hastily concluded and the worries began. There was much to be glum about but it wasn’t all bad news. The spacecraft was unmanned, and it performed as designed in the case of emergency, separating from the stricken booster and parachuting back to earth. An expensive rocket and dozens of scientific instruments were lost, but mercifully there was no loss of life.
This is the second setback in September for U.S. rocket launches. The long-delayed, much-touted Artemis rocket, designed with enough lift to support a moon shot, was twice shut down during the countdown. A new launch has been set for some time in the next few weeks, but worries remain about the hydrogen fuel leak that caused plans to be scrubbed twice already.
“NASA’s Artemis Rocket Is a Gigantic Waste of Money,”wrote Adam Minter, a tech writer for Bloomberg. “The lunar mission is already years late and billions over budget. Meanwhile, private companies have been pushing boundaries in space travel for more than a decade.”
Leroy Chiao, a former U.S. astronaut has weighed in on what some see as NASA’s Artemis program as well, though in more diplomatic terms. Speaking to theChina Project last month he said: “It’s been a long time coming and it’s cost a lot more than it was supposed to, and we’re still a long ways from sending humans back to the moon.”
Chiao, the first Chinese-American astronaut in space, is a veteran of three Shuttle missions and one long stay on the ISS space station. Chiao, who can speak Chinese, also has an unparalleled perspective on U.S.-China space cooperation and the lack of it. He was reportedly the first American allowed to enter China’s secretive Astronaut Center of China located in the outskirts of Beijing. An early and ardent supporter of joint missions and cooperation, he spent months training in Star City in Russia where he learned Russian well enough to co-pilot a Soyuz craft during his ISS mission.
A natural ambassador to the cause of international cooperation, it has been dismaying for the trilingual Chiao to see joint projects and cooperation crumble in recent years. Space exploration is by nature extremely complex and challenging, if not outright dangerous. It is also very expensive, which begs the question of why space-faring nations don’t cooperate more often, as was done successfully with the ISS.
In 2011, Frank Wolf and other conservative U.S. politicians put the jinx on cooperation with China. That the Wolf Amendment effectively banned China from participating in the U.S.-led International Space Station is well-known. But Chiao has seen small-minded thinking operate at all levels. He pointed out the ridiculous lengths to which the amendment was interpreted by its right-wing enforcers: Chinese journalists were banned from NASA on the spurious grounds that not a penny of U.S. funds could be spent on the nominal funds necessary to conduct a security check and issue access badges.
Chiao admits that China’s speedy advances in space owe much to building on the base of already existing Russian technology, but it is getting better at making its own product. He pointed out that Russian space suits were discarded as soon as a Chinese-designed space suit was available, though the systems remain interchangeable. The Shenzhou is modeled after the Soyuz craft but it has been independently fine-tuned long enough to use very different fuel systems.
The U.S. is still in the lead, but is it in for the long game?
NASA, accustomed to resting on its laurels, has gotten fat and lax, say critics. Eric Berger recentlywrote in Ars Technica that Artemis, a decade in the making and still awaiting its inaugural launch, will be “a dinosaur from the moment it takes off.”
It uses Saturn 5 style technology along with some problematic technology from the troubled Space Shuttle program. Its dated fuel systems are prone to hydrogen leaks, nothing is reusable. But at four billion dollars a pop, he says it’s “too big to fail.”
Trump ordered NASA to speed up which did nothing to cut costs or improve likely success, for it reduced oversight in speeding up the bidding process. NASA doesn’t just do science; it creates and maintains jobs for companies like Boeing which is a big player in the Artemis program.
Both Chiao and Berger cite the downside of success. Chiao laments the way NASA has broken into silos. There is infighting instead of across-the-board cooperation. There is bureaucratic waste and constant revisioning of projects due to changing political winds in Washington. Berger points out that it is taking Artemis longer to get off the ground than the entire history of NASA leading up to the first moon landing that was started from scratch (no rockets, no astronauts) in July 1958.
Leroy Chiao thinks that today’s NASA, despite its stellar achievements, could learn a few things from China.
“China is spending less money, but they are able to get more done,” he says. This is partly because they have a flatter management structure. “There’s less bureaucracy, less bureaucracy than in our system.”
To some extent, commercial space flight reduces the bloat because corporations tend to be driven by the bottom line. But privatizing space is no panacea either, as the current woes of Blue Origin, recent scandals at Boeing and past troubles of SpaceX suggest.
Artemis uses hydrogen fuel, which is not only highly flammable, but highly prone to leaks due to hydrogen’s unique lightness as an element. The unpalatable truth is that rockets contain highly combustive material of one kind or another and are prone to explosion if the smallest thing goes wrong. The seemingly minor “O-ring” problem of the Challenger shuttle tragedy in 1986 demonstrated to the world that something akin to a frozen rubber band can make or break a mission.
Blue Amazon is studying the telemetry from the failed launch but so far has offered no public explanation as to why a large, anomalous plume of fire came shooting out of the rocket's engine, causing the booster to fail and crash to the ground.
All in all, with multiple rocket launch setbacks and lack of internal cooperation at NASA, it may be time for the U.S. to take notes on space program successes abroad.