Years late and billions over budget, NASA’s most powerful rocket finally set for takeoff

If all goes as planned, NASA will launch a rocket to return to the moon Saturday afternoon. This first phase will send an unmanned capsule to lunar orbit and back, but NASA wants humans to land on the moon in 2024 or 2025. As science correspondent Miles O'Brien reports, it has taken a long time and a lot of money to get Artemis going, an approach that has been the subject of some criticism.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    If all goes as planned, NASA will launch a rocket tomorrow afternoon that is the start of a longer mission to get back to the moon.

    This first phase of the Artemis moon mission will send an unmanned capsule to lunar orbit and back, but NASA wants humans to land again on the moon in 2024 or '25, and has far grander designs and destinations after that.

    As science correspondent Miles O'Brien tells us, it has taken a long time and a lot of money to get the Artemis mission off the ground.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    It was a countdown to yet another delay. Years late and billions over budget, NASA's most powerful rocket ever is still on the pad in Florida after bad weather and a host of technical issues scuttled a launch attempt Monday.

    The Space Launch System will be carrying an Orion spacecraft on an uncrewed test flight to orbit the moon. It's 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's 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 Kennedy Space Center a month before launch. 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 their.

  • Person:

    Initiation sequence start.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    It has 15 percent more thrust than the Saturn V rocket, which launched 12 men to the surface of the moon between 1969 and 1972.

    The SLS returns NASA to the Apollo design philosophy, a capsule on top of the rocket.

  • Person:

    The final liftoff of Atlantis.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Unlike the space shuttle orbiter attached downstream and on the side, in harm's way of falling debris, which caused the demise of the Columbia crew in 2003.

  • Liliana Villarreal, NASA Flow Manager:

    This is where the crew would enter Orion.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    SLS flow manager Lili Villarreal took me to the top of the 32-story rocket and showed me the Lockheed Martin-built Orion with its protective launch cover in place, attached above, rockets designed to whisk capsule and crew away from the stack if something goes terribly wrong.

  • Liliana Villarreal:

    So, has the capability to do a launch abort, so say the rocket has taken off and something happens, and we need the crew to get off of the vehicle.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    And that's a significant safety improvement over shuttle?

  • Liliana Villarreal:

    Absolutely.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    But there is still a lot of space shuttle DNA in the SLS design. 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 NASA Deputy 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 as 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.

    So, when we heard, oh, pieces of the shuttle kind of put together, that will be faster, that was actually not true at all.

  • Bill Nelson:

    It was a seducing argument, because there were certain technologies that we were comfortable with.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    But Lori Garver and others in the Obama administration were not comfortable with the old way of building rockets, cost plus contracts, which guarantee companies healthy profits even if they're late and over budget.

  • Person:

    We have a liftoff of the Falcon 9.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Instead, Garver wanted to double down on fixed price agreements with the likes of Elon Musk's SpaceX.

    But the old space industrial complex exerted its political influence. And Senator Nelson led the charge to make SLS the law of the land in 2010.

    So a lot of people over the years have called this at various times the Senate launch system or Mr. Nelson's rocket. It really does have your imprint on it.

  • Bill Nelson:

    Well, you're very kind, Miles, to want to give me all this credit, but the fact is that we were at a crossroads in NASA, that the program before had been just not going to make it to go back to the moon.

  • Person:

    Liftoff of Ares I-X, testing concepts for the future of new rocket design.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    The Bush administration proposed that program called Constellation in 2004. Using that milestone, it has taken NASA 18 years to finally be poised to launch an unmanned rocket and capsule toward the moon.

    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. It has slated an orbital test flight in September.

    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.

    Elon Musk claims the price tag for a Starship launch will be less than $10 million.

  • 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 at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And fingers crossed all goes well with this mission.

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