NASA’s Artemis rocket finally lifts off after political, financial, technical delays

For the first time in half a century, NASA is starting to make its way back to a lunar landing. The Artemis rocket was finally able to launch early Wednesday morning after prior delays, sending an unmanned capsule around the moon. At the same time, there are plenty of questions about the path NASA has chosen to make this happen. Miles O'Brien reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    For the first time in half-a-century, NASA is starting to make its way back to a moon landing.

    Overnight, the Artemis rocket was finally able to launch after prior delays, sending an unmanned capsule around the moon. An actual lunar landing won't happen before 2025. But this was a historic moment for the space agency. And, at the same time, there are plenty of questions about the path that NASA has chosen to make this happen.

    Miles O'Brien reports.

  • Speaker:

    Three, two, one, boosters and ignition, and liftoff of Artemis 1!

  • Miles O’Brien:

    NASA's most powerful rocket ever lit the night sky in Florida.

    The Space Launch System lofted an Orion spacecraft on an uncrewed test flight to orbit the moon. The rocket carries a long backstory of political, financial, technical and meteorological delays. NASA launch director Charlie Blackwell-Thompson savored the success with her team at the Kennedy Space Center.

  • Charlie Blackwell-Thompson, NASA Launch Director:

    I want you to look around, look around at this team, and know that you have earned it. You have earned your place in the room. You have earned this moment. You have earned your place in history.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    It is the Artemis 1 mission, NASA's first foray in its encore campaign to send humans back to the lunar surface. This time, the agency is promising more than flags and footprints.

    Why is NASA going back to the moon?

  • Bill Nelson, NASA Administrator:

    Because we do not have the capability of going to Mars.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    That is former shuttle payload specialist, former Florida Senator and current NASA Administrator Bill Nelson.

  • Bill Nelson:

    What we're going to learn living and working on the moon is going to help us.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    I met Nelson at the cape in July. Still inside the cavernous Vehicle Assembly Building, the Boeing-built SLS rocket was enveloped in a cocoon of scaffolding, so technicians could work through their close-out checklists.

    What goes through your mind when you see this thing all stacked up in here?

  • Bill Nelson:

    The enormity, the amount of energy that is contained in there.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    As I toured the VAB, I thought about the Saturn V moon rockets. This huge building was designed to house four of them at once.

    The SLS is 15 percent more powerful than a Saturn V. It literally and figuratively borrows from the Apollo and space shuttle programs. Its four main engines are modified shuttle leftovers. So too are the twin solid rocket boosters. And the fuel tank design also has strong shuttle lineage.

  • Lori Garver, Former Deputy NASA Administrator:

    SLS does not push technology that was never part of its sales pitch. It was the opposite. It was, because we are reusing shuttle parts, we are going to be able to do this sooner and for less money.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Lori Garver was NASA's deputy administrator from 2009 until 2013. In her newly released book, "Escaping Gravity," she says Boeing executives promised to deliver a moon rocket in five years for $6 billion. That was 2010.

  • Lori Garver:

    I don't believe these people thought it would be true, but they knew they could sell that to Congress.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    And who was buying what Boeing was selling? None other than Bill Nelson, then chairman of the Senate committee that oversees NASA.

    Why has taken so long?

  • Bill Nelson:

    It wasn't a repeat of the stack, of the space transportation system, in other words, the shuttle.

    The Orion capsule had to have all kinds of new sophistication, not the old Apollo stuff. So this is a brand-new rocket. And when you design a brand-new rocket and build it, it's going to take time. And it did.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Meanwhile, the brand-new, much cheaper rockets keep emerging and launching from SpaceX at a much faster rate. The company has its own moon and Mars ambitions, with its heavy lift rocket called Starship.

    The stainless steel, Buck Rogers-style vehicle will be fully reusable. Except for the Orion capsule, NASA's new rocket is a completely expendable single-use system. NASA's inspector general estimates the Artemis campaign will cost $93 billion between 2012 and 2025, $4.1 billion for a single launch.

  • Lori Garver:

    This isn't NASA's best foot forward. We are better than this.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    So, what does SLS prove, if anything?

  • Lori Garver:

    I think SLS will prove that we shouldn't be doing things in this way anymore.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    It is already happening. NASA has contracted with SpaceX to build the landing craft, a modified Starship, to take astronauts from lunar orbit to the surface of the moon on the third Artemis mission.

    So, you have to wonder, is this the beginning of an era at some level or is it the end of an era of a way of building rocket ships to space?

  • Bill Nelson:

    It's the beginning of a new era of both commercial and government joining up in a partnership. It will evolve.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Of course, evolution implies a natural selection. NASA's big gold-plated rocket may be aiming for the moon, but it also may be headed the way of the dinosaurs.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Miles O'Brien still here on planet Earth.

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