This is probably the best episode of Smarter Every Day that I’ve seen, on multiple levels.
This episode might well be titled “Smarter Every Day’s Destin Sandlin vs. NASA’s ‘Dumber Every Way’ Artemis Program”. Sandlin, speaking to a meeting of the American Astronautical Society in Huntsville, Alabama titled “Advancing Space: From LEO to Lunar and Beyond”, dissects the absurdity of NASA’s Artemis Program to return humans to the Moon. Some of the insane aspects of this project have been discussed here, particularly on the thread “Space Launch System: The Hits Just Keep On Coming”, which began in November 2021 and most recently (2023-12-01) discussed a just-issued U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) report on Artemis which estimated its goal of landing a crew on the lunar surface was unlikely to be achieved before 2027.
While the GAO report accepts the architecture chosen for the project as a given and examines budgetary and schedule considerations in accomplishing it, Sandlin (who while not producing YouTube videos is a real-world missile engineer and currently Ph.D. candidate at the University of Alabama, Huntsville) examines the project through the eyes of an engineer, drawing insights from the 1971 NASA technical report “What Made Apollo a Success” [PDF full text, 86 pages, available at link], a collection of eight articles originally published in Astronautics & Aeronautics written by Apollo Project senior managers.
By the standards of Apollo, Artemis looks less like a rational plan for lunar exploration and settlement than something cobbled up by Acme Corporation for a certain coyote client’s endless quest for poultry dinner. Consider: while Apollo’s command and service modules entered low lunar orbit before transferring crew to the lunar module for descent to the surface, the Artemis Orion spacecraft adopts a “near-rectilinear halo orbit” (NRHO) in the Earth-Moon system, then uses a separate Human Landing System craft to travel to the surface. Because the NRHO spends most of its time distant from the Moon, it could take days to rescue a crew in trouble on the Moon, while with Apollo the mother ship was never more than one two-hour lunar orbit away. For later missions, NASA plans to put a “gateway” in NRHO to transfer crew to the landing craft.
Why all of this complexity? Well, because the Orion spacecraft, flying more than fifty years after Apollo, lacks the delta-v to enter low lunar orbit and return. Why is this? Because NASA didn’t have the money to design an Apollo-style service module for Orion, and instead is using a pint size module cobbled together by the European Space Agency out of pieces designed for the now-obsolete Automated Transfer Vehicle once used to launch cargo to the International Space Station.
This, in turn, requires a complex lander, and the Human Landing System planned for the Artemis III mission, which is supposed to make the first landing, is based upon the SpaceX Starship, which will require refuelling in Earth orbit to reach the vicinity of the Moon. That, in turn, will require multiple launches of a Starship tanker craft (yet to be designed and demonstrated)—how many launches?—nobody knows: estimates are as high as fifteen or maybe even more. And for each tanker flight, there will have to be a transfer of cryogenic propellants (liquid oxygen and methane) from tanker to the lunar lander, something which has never been demonstrated at all during the entire history of space flight. And all of this will require routine operation of Starship, which has yet to reach orbit, not to mention recovering the first stage booster and tanker upper stage, which will be required to achieve the launch cadence needed to refill the lunar lander stage before its propellants boil off.
All of this is widely known among the space community, who are watching NASA sleep-walking toward disaster with the kind of blind arrogance that led to the Apollo 1 fire and Space Shuttle Challenger and Columbia accidents, while boasting of their “Mega Moon Rocket” frankenstitched together from used Shuttle parts which has less payload to orbit capacity than the Saturn V which first flew in 1967. But it took Destin Sandlin to speak these unspoken truths before an audience of NASA and contractor personnel, and say “shame on you” if they had not even bothered to read the lessons of those who made Apollo a success and would probably be laughing out loud if asked to review NASA’s Artemis architecture.
Robert Zubrin famously observed that while once NASA spent money to fly missions, now it flies missions in order to spend money. Artemis is the creation of politicians, and boasts of having more than 1,100 contractors spread all over the U.S. gobbling up taxpayer dollars to build this ACME throwaway moon rocket.
In subsequent comments I will post reaction to Sandlin’s talk from various observers of the space scene.
Ooo! You should trademark that!
I absolutely love this talk by Destin (@smartereveryday) and he’s absolutely right! Overall, he made a well thought out case to simplify & ensure mission success for the Artemis program. That being said, I did want to write a few thoughts I have on some things. Thank you Destin for sharing this talk and allowing room for fun and important discussion, I look forward to everyone’s comments below!
While SpaceX’s plans for Starship HLS (Human Landing System) currently rely on somewhere around 15 Starship launches to refuel in order to get Starship HLS to the moon, the reality is, it doesn’t NEED to rely on 15 launches. SuperHeavy has demonstrated its capability as a super heavy lift booster, by simply sacrificing some SuperHeavy Boosters (if the mission timeline would slip too far), they could greatly reduce the number of refueling trips by about half, and if they utilized disposable Starships to refuel HLS, they could probably do the entire HLS system launch in a few launches. So even if the full rapidly reusability / in orbit refueling is too ambitious for this timeline, SpaceX would have no problem walking backwards on these technologies for the HLS system in the interim. It’s better for SpaceX to be pushing for the full vision and if need be, walk it back, which is much better than trying to go the other direction (realizing your system isn’t capable and need to scale it up / increase performance).
Another fun note is Destin continually said it will take “15 rockets” to refuel HLS. This might be a bit pedantic and a matter of semantics, but technically, SpaceX will require 15 LAUNCHES, not 15 rockets. It very likely could be done by the same physical rocket or a few rockets that would do the work to refuel a depot. I just think it’s fun how engrained the idea of 1 launch = 1 rocket when the reality can be 1 rocket = 18 launches (so far) with the Falcon 9.
On that same note, despite 15 launches for a lunar mission sounds absolutely absurd today, I think even 3 years ago if we said there would need to be 15 launches of a Falcon 9 for a lunar mission, it would’ve seemed ridiculous considering there were only 26 launches in 2020. But we’re getting closer to 4 times that amount of launches for Falcon 9 just 3 years later. So 15 launches for a Falcon 9 already seems much much more reasonable and feasible than it did 3 years ago. Although Starship hasn’t made it to orbit on any of its test flights, once it does get to orbit, its cadence will very likely increase and if it were to double each year, it won’t be long before 15 launches isn’t out of the question. It still could easily be 4+ years by this estimate, but in grand scheme of things, say in 20 years, 15 launches of a rocket shouldn’t seem that ridiculous, I would actually assume by then anything less than 15 launches of a rocket would be ridiculous.
And I think the scariest part of all of this is the unproven / unknown nature of all of these technologies. But for me, the number of launches for refueling isn’t scary. If they can refuel once, they can refuel twice, they can refuel 10 times, they can refuel 20 times. Yes complications, costs and risk do increase with a higher number of refueling trips, but if it is technically possible, someday, that number will be trivial.
But we’re also missing one HUGE point. And I mean HUGE. Starship has nearly 1,000 cubic meters of payload volume and after doing 15 refueling trips, it can land 100 metric tonnes OF PAYLOAD on the moon (not including the weight of the vehicle itself and its propellant). The Apollo lunar landers had 4.5 cubic meters of payload volume. 1,000 vs 4.5… but this actually goes to Destin’s point. If “We are going” as Artemis promos excitedly push, isn’t an entire Starship just absolute overkill? I mean, even if it was “just” 15 times the volume, (75 cubic meters), it’d still be gargantuan and luxurious for a small crew, more on par with the massive Space Shuttle crew compartment. So yes, it might take 15 launches, but it’s taking over 200 times the volume, and 100 times the mass to the surface of the moon. SpaceX is planning to basically land something with the internal volume of the International Space Station on the moon!!! AND importantly, it’s designed to be reusable, so of those 15 launches, if all goes as planned, NONE of the hardware to do that mission would actually be thrown away… only their propellant! So that means every single Saturn V / Apollo Lander that ever launched still wouldn’t match the capability of this one Starship HLS mission in terms of payload and volume. We aren’t trying to repeat Apollo by barely being able to put two humans in a cramped tin can (said with love) for a few days, NASA is trying to develop the systems for sustained lunar exploration at a scale and cost unheard of during the Apollo program.
If I were at SpaceX’s HLS program and I was nervous about being the “long pole” in the Artemis program’s return to the moon, I would consider scaling down HLS to 1/10th the size. It’d still be 20 times the volume of the Apollo lunar lander and could likely be done in a single expendable Starship / SuperHeavy mission. And although it goes against the entire philosophy and ethos of SpaceX / @elonmusk’s vision for Starship, when the customer is waiting, maybe we don’t need the ENTIRE kit and caboodle to be fully realized before fulfilling at least the most basic return to the moon mission. And again, it’s much easier to scale down and scale back reusability efforts in order to increase performance and I genuinely think if SpaceX HAD to put a scaled down HLS lander into orbit with enough propellant for a TLI and landing, they would have the physical capabilities by next year just by building a one off disposable Starship (I mean they’re already disposing full scale Starship / SuperHeavy’s for their test campaigns anyway, so it’s fairly trivial in the grand scheme of things).
Another little note, Blue Origin’s lunar lander is taking what I would say is a more conservative approach in terms of scale and complexity, however it still relies on some undemonstrated technologies, including also refueling on orbit of cryogenic propellants, and a boiloff prevention system for hydrolox. If boil-off is a concern for Starship and its methalox propellant is of concern, then let’s not even get started on hydrolox boil-off. But again, the capabilities of the Blue lander are leaps ahead of the Apollo program and I think it’s still ambitious and worthy of the Artemis program.
Lastly, Destin was quick to rightfully point out why Artemis is using NRHO (Near Rectilinear Halo Orbit) because Orion isn’t capable of getting into Low Lunar Orbit, but he didn’t dive into the even bigger problem of why Orion can’t. The simple answer is SLS doesn’t have the performance to send any more mass to the moon than Orion with its small, undersized service module. If NASA were to wait to develop a lunar system and Gateway until SLS Block 1B was at least flying with the Exploration Upper Stage, they could stretch the service module by 10 tonnes, so potentially nearly doubling the propellant capacity, it would be able to achieve a much lower lunar orbit. This doesn’t change the size / scale / refueling requirements of the current SpaceX HLS lander at all, but it at least gets rid of the potential 6+ day rendezvous from the surface of the moon to the Orion capable which is required to get a crew home safely.
I likely made my own false assumptions about things in this write up, but these are just my thoughts when I heard this talk. The bigger point of Destin’s talk about leaning on “the Playbook” is still fantastic, however, “we” aren’t just trying to return to the moon with the same ambitions as Apollo, NASA is trying to do things bigger, safer and ultimately less expensive in the long run than that Apollo program. And that’s a HUGE HUGE ask since the Apollo Program is still easily one of the most impressive things humans have EVER done, especially given the available technologies of their day. Fantastic video Destin, thanks for opening up a fun and honest conversation!!!
I enjoyed your delivery and overall enthusiasm. It’s great to see this kind of dialogue and I respect that you had the courage to give such a speech to such an audience.
I do have some feedback that’s more on the negative side, but I share in a friendly way and as part of the “feedback loop” in hopes we all can continue the good faith discussion.
I think you fundamentally missed the mark in not recognizing and emphasizing further that Artemis aims to do substantially more than Apollo did. That’s the mission. And to do so, it requires a different and more complex architecture than Apollo.
Apollo was a veiled technological superiority race with the Soviet Union during the Cold War. It was a national priority and received significant funding incomparable to what NASA gets today. It achieved its goal of putting humans on the Moon and returning them to Earth by the end of the 1960s. A lot was learned, and the accomplishment is truly mind-boggling when considering the technology used and the timeframe in which it was developed. It’s the pinnacle of human achievement.
But it was a “flags and footprints” program. And frankly, at least in retrospect, it was a program to nowhere beyond flags and footprints. In contrast, today’s Artemis program isn’t driven by a strong national mandate or a comparable budget. The urgency of a “race to the Moon” is absent, though competition with China looms on the horizon.
Despite lacking a similarly strong national mandate, Artemis seeks to establish a prolonged lunar presence, focusing on extended missions, global collaboration, and further scientific research, and it lays groundwork for future interplanetary travel. That’s the mission. This is much more than the short stays of Apollo with single-use rockets that put a few tons on the surface.
There are definitely some oddities to the program and its complexity, largely stemming from the political necessity of SLS/Orion and as a result, Gateway. That’s (largely) another discussion and those vehicles and programs can be, and are, debated heavily. But the reality is they are here to stay, at least for a bit.
Another item of discussion is the high launch volume required for in-space refueling, the criticism of which is fair at a surface level but ultimately overblown. I think you overlook the capabilities this brings. These missions will support a ginormous lunar lander that will be able to deliver dozens and dozens of tons of cargo to the lunar surface — a stark contrast to Apollo’s small, single-use spacecraft.
Those capsules ended up on display in museums. Starship itself could house a small museum.
Sure, some of this mission architecture is complicated at first glance and could be communicated better to the public. “We are going” is a fun and simple slogan, but it immediately begs the question of “didn’t we already go?” That said, I recognize that “we are going back and are going to do way more cool stuff and stay for longer” doesn’t quite work as well.
Could today’s engineers maybe spend a bit of time “being more like Apollo?” Yeah, they might learn a thing or two about being a bit scrappier and applying old ways of thinking to new problems. But that’s the wrong angle because we’re not just repeating Apollo.
Also, I think it’s wrong to think of the situation as a 0-6 scorecard of Artemis engineers versus Apollo engineers. Let’s think of it as getting the U.S. and all of humanity from 6 to 7 and beyond.
While the current reality of the Artemis program is a bit contrived in its combining of outdated shuttle technology with modern commercial hardware and solutions, it’s still a pragmatic step. And for the most part, that step is forward.
Is it ideal? No. But it’s better that we have a less than ideal reality versus having a perfect dream. I’d rather say “we are going,” even if the methodology isn’t perfect, rather than say “I wish we would go.”
I don’t understand why boil off of cryogenics is such a problem in orbit, where temperatures are low. Hasn’t the ability to shield spacecraft from solar heating with lightweight materials been amply demonstrated by JWST? Finally, can’t tanks sufficiently strong to contain liquified gases be built, which would maintain sufficient pressure to prevent any boil off?
The question should really be: “Why can’t we get the resources to put the man on the moon? And why are the existing resources so inefficiently used?” - in the spirit of Ohno’s Five whys - Wikipedia
What do you think? What’s your 5-why analysis of this?
Temperatures are not low in low Earth orbit (LEO), where refuelling will take place and where the Human Landing System Starship will be while being refuelled. In LEO, almost half of the solid angle surrounding a spacecraft is occupied by the Earth, which has an average temperature of around 15° C, much warmer than liquid methane or oxygen, and for half of every orbit, you’re exposed to sunlight, which deposits up to 1.3 kW of energy per square metre of spacecraft area facing the sun depending upon its albedo (reflectivity). A shiny surface like the stainless steel of Starship will reduce absorption, but with its large area, it’s still a substantial input.
The “wings” that extend from the International Space Station aren’t just solar panels: there are also large radiators which use an active circuit of ammonia refrigerant to dissipate up to 70 kW of heat generated by crew and equipment on the station.
Studies of purpose-built orbital propellant depots estimate that with insulation and a reflective Sun shield boil-off can be reduced to around 0.13% per day (3.8% per month) for liquid hydrogen (which will be used by the Blue Origin Human Landing System) and 0.016% per day (0.49%/month) for liquid oxygen or methane. Boil-off in partially filled tanks is greater than for full tanks, so losses will be higher during filling by multiple tanker flights.
This is for a dedicated depot explicitly designed for propellant storage. For a ship like Starship or Blue Origin’s lander, losses would be greater. Active refrigeration can further reduce losses, but such systems are heavy, complicated, have never been demonstrated in orbit, and are not proposed for the Artemis lander refilling.
Webb is out at Sun-Earth L2 where it only needs to worry about reflecting light from the Sun. If it were in low Earth orbit, its Sun shield would be completely inadequate to reject heat radiated by the Earth. Infrared space telescopes in low Earth orbit use liquid helium refrigerant to cool their sensors and when, after a few years, the helium all boils away, the telescope is junk for long wave infrared observations.
The movie he cited:
Thank you. I am surprised to learn how warm it is in LEO!
My limited familiarity with compressed gases comes from my former anesthesia work. There, we had tanks of nitrous oxide filled with liquid in equilibrium with a small amount of gas at 750 psi. No gas vented from these. I don’t understand why the same cannot be done with rocket propellants. Is it because this system does not scale to the sizes required for the envisioned space missions? The thickness and weight of the medical-size cylinders (depending on material) can exceed that of the weight of gas contained by up to a factor of two.
Nitrous oxide can be liquefied at room temperature if kept under high pressure. This makes it attractive as an oxidiser for simple rockets, since it does not require cryogenic storage and is self-pressurising, meaning no pump is required to force it into the combustion chamber. This simplicity is why Virgin Galactic uses it for the oxidiser in their Space Ship 2 hybrid rocket motor. It does not provide as high a specific impulse as liquid oxygen, and is poorly suited for an orbital launcher.
Liquid oxygen and methane (and even more so for hydrogen) cannot be compressed into a liquid state at room temperature at all (oxygen has a critical temperature of −118° C—no amount of pressure will liquefy it above that temperature). Consequently, they must be maintained at cryogenic temperatures in order to be stored densely in rocket propellant tanks.
He says to remain mission focused, but that’s the problem. We have to end the “mission” mentality. We have to create a transportation infrastructure that makes getting back to the Moon, to other points in cislunar space, and beyond, routine. The fact that we’re not attempting to do so is why Artemis, as currently conceived, will prove as unsustainable as Apollo was.
I intentionally did not click the link to find out details about the author. The response makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up. It reads exactly like what I would expect from an organization that has the problem Destin thinks NASA has.
The quotes below are not from johnwalker. They are quotes from johnwalker’s quote of John Kraus.
If it is complicated at first glance, it typically is complicated. If it is simple at first glance it is simple. Sometimes complexity cannot be avoided, but the explanation of why it is complex is simple (if the person giving the explanation is knowledgeable).
This is the specific quote that made my hair stand up because in my personal experience this is always what management would say when the engineers would be in near 100% agreement that the decision was stupid, that they were not involved nor asked. At best they sat in the room and knew not to “rock the boat”. My advice to any young engineer is that if you ever encounter this, run. Never waste your efforts on a project that you know will not be successful. Don’t collect a paycheck. No amount of money can replace the thrill of success nor scrub away the lack of it. Even when you, as an individual, perform well, losing sucks.
He wasn’t asking that. He was asking something much more basic. Have you learned from the past? Have you even tried to learn? If you are a coach, did you read John Wooden or Bill Walsh? That doesn’t mean be like them. They are not the same. But their principles for success are strikingly similar. Only the wording changes.
Football is different than basketball. College is different than pro. Not just Wooden and Walsh. You can almost match up Ben Franklin’s keys to success to Wooden and Walsh.
It is exactly the right angle. Saying you are not doing exactly the same thing is a really bad answer to the question.
In my opinion, Destin wasn’t trying to debate specific decisions. He was probing whether the organization was functioning properly. When you ask a questions and get the thousand-yard stare or people looking at their shoes, the specific decision isn’t the problem, the organization is the problem.
I wasn’t in the room and I listened to the video so I do not know how the people in the room were behaving. Many times people won’t answer a presenters questions for a variety of reasons. It might not mean anything, but if Destin’s description was accurate, NASA has a huge problem. One that cannot be corrected by the people in that room.
It must be in a different post where the goal and timeline were provided. NASA failed on timelines and spending. Zero is exactly the right answer. The question is whether the game should now be called? Here is my law of program management. If you miss timelines or overspend and do not make a serious correction, you will continue to miss timelines and overspend. The only question is by how long and how much. A great question would be exactly what was done when the timeline or the budget slipped? NASA you were given a mission and you agreed to do it. Time is up. You missed it. You don’t get to just keep working on it and working on it. Was the mission to just work on it for however long it takes? Were you given a new mission when you failed the last one?
I intentionally didn’t even view the video until today. The thumbnail image just reminded me too much of the blood letting I had to go through in the late 80s and early 90s and am still going through because I provided “negative feedback” starting with the Launch Services Purchase Act of 1990, which uncovered ever higher levels of “the control system” until I naively made the tactical error of saying the word “Jew”.
From the linked article:
Below is the not-so-famous interoffice memo describing the O-ring seal problem well in advance of Richard Feynman’s famous analysis of the cause of the Challenger explosion.
I saw a Feynman speech on this. TLDR: Everybody knew the Emperor was naked but they needed Feynman to play the little boy. At least he got a free trip to DC.