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The Artemis Jumped Over the Moon

By Matthew Kresal

Artemis 8 using Dragon.

Picture courtesy The Mars Society.

Artemis 8

At Christmas 1968, NASA engaged in one of the boldest missions that the American space agency has ever engaged in. By launching Apollo 8 with astronauts Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and Bill Anders to the Moon, NASA sought to finally lay the ghost of the Apollo 1 fire nearly two years before aside. By proving the worth of the Apollo command module, the Saturn V, and the various aspects of the mission, it would prove the viability of the Apollo programme and set the stage for the landing of a crew in the remaining twelve months of the 1960s. History records that Apollo 8 was a triumph and, after two more missions that test the lunar module in Earth and then lunar orbit, less than seven months later would lead to Apollo 11’s landing.

Apollo 11. Anyone who was alive at the time remembers this. And Michael Collins became officially the loneliest human being ever.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

More than five decades later, prominent figures in the American space community called on NASA to return to that bold spirit. One that would help Apollo’s belated successor, Artemis, survive a tumultuous political landscape that was taking shape in the lead-up to the 2020 Presidential election. One that would prove NASA’s ability to return human beings to the Moon in something of a re-run of Apollo 8’s triumphant voyage. The proposal would come to be known as “Artemis 8”.


Waiting on a Mission

To understand the context of the proposal, it’s necessary to cast the reader’s mind back to where NASA and the Artemis programme stood in the summer of 2020. Artemis was the successor to the Constellation programme first announced under President George W Bush following the 2003 Columbia disaster that had cost the space agency both one of their space shuttle orbiters and the lives of seven astronauts. Intended to return astronauts to the Moon, Constellation quickly overran and fell behind schedule. The Obama Administration cancelled Constellation in 2010, though elements of it remained in development as part of new long-range future mission plans, such as the Orion capsule and the Ares V booster that would become the Space Launch System (SLS).


While Orion had its first uncrewed flight in 2014 atop a Delta IV heavy booster, development on the SLS continued slowly. By the time the Trump Administration had taken office, SLS had already missed its first prospective launch date as part of NASA’s “Journey to Mars” initiative. While commercial space flight companies such as SpaceX were making progress, including launching astronauts for the first time in a decade in May 2020, NASA seemed to be marking time until SLS was ready to fly. In June 2017, the National Space Council was re-established, leading that December to another change in NASA policy that saw a renewed focus on returning American astronauts to the Moon in the near term with Mars now taking a backseat, though still notionally pencilled in for the 2030s.

Delta IV Heavy booster. Big toys indeed.

Picture courtesy Wikipedia.

The effect of this change in policy became apparent in 2019 when NASA announced the Artemis programme. The agency was now tasked with returning American astronauts to the Moon by 2024, a mere five years away. At that time, the first launch of the programme atop SLS had been moved to late 2021.


By mid-2020, it was apparent that SLS was not likely to launch in late 2021. The Covid pandemic, too, had taken its toll, with it beginning to appear that Trump would not be re-elected that November. To some in the space community, it appeared that history was about to repeat itself. That come 2021, a new Democratic Administration would cancel the Artemis programme altogether, leading to another shift in US space policy that would put the goal of a lunar return or a crewed Mars mission even further into the future.


Artemis, according to that view, was a sitting duck for cuts from the next Congress. It would need a Hail Mary to make it past 2021. Which is when Robert Zubrin presented “Artemis 8”.


The Man Behind the Mission

For those with an interest in human space flight, Zubrin’s name has been a recurring feature for more than three decades now. An engineer by training, Zubrin was working at Martin Marietta when President George HW Bush’s Space Exploration Initiative (SEI) was announced in 1989. A vision of what the agency would have to offer over the following decades, including space stations, Moon bases, and a mission to Mars was presented, but SEI’s grand plans met with a hostile Congressional reaction following the revelation that it would cost some $450 billion over the following two to three decades.

Robert Zubrin, President of the Mars Society.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Zubrin, working on interplanetary mission planning at Martin Marietta, collaborated with fellow engineer David Baker on a cheaper proposal for a Mars mission. This proposal, known as Mars Direct, began to be pitched by the pair around NASA in 1990 as Congress was shutting down various SEI programmes. This plan, which would see humans on Mars by the end of the decade, dropped much of SEI’s grand plans for a focus on a Mars programme. Though it gained traction in some corners of the agency, it met resistance from those advocating a space station (part of the NASA planning dating back to the Reagan Administration the previous decade), and also criticism from engineers who believed that the living space provided by the plan would not fully accommodate a crew for the lengthy mission time.


NASA’s hopes for a Mars mission in the 1990s/early 2000s were dashed when Bill Clinton won the 1992 Presidential election. Having campaigned heavily among officials of the former Administration and Republican members of Congress (including future Clinton nemesis and Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich), it was perhaps inevitable that a near-future Mars mission would be seen as a Republican proposal. Clinton and his Vice President, Al Gore, shifted focus on what would become the International Space Station (ISS), with its global cost-sharing and with some hope of stopping rocket expertise from leaving the former USSR. Even so, long-term crewed Mars mission planning continued with Mars Direct shifting NASA’s planning as early as 1993. Zubrin would continue to make a case for Mars Direct and a more pressing need for a crewed mission to the Red Planet over the decades that followed, including in his 1996 book The Case for Mars.

The dream.

Picture courtesy Wikipedia.

With NASA’s focus shifted between Mars and the Moon, Zubrin also took an interest in lunar matters. In 2018, as the Trump Administration once more shifted NASA’s focus and plans were taking shape for a Lunar Gateway, Zubrin announced his own plans for lunar colonisation, also in 2018.


Known as Moon Direct, Zubrin called for the building of a base at the lunar south pole (something that had figured into NASA’s plans for what was eventually named the Artemis programme) but called for the abandonment of the Lumar Gateway space station, aiming for a direct ascent to the base.


With Zubrin’s history of mission planning, campaigning, and having turned his gaze towards the Moon, the Artemis 8 proposal would be sent to NASA and published by press outlets in the summer of 2020.


Artemis 8

As proposed by Zubrin in a memo to NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine and Scott Pace, Executive Secretary of the National Space Council, on 30 June 2020, “Artemis 8” would not involve NASA’s Orion capsule or SLS at all. Instead, on the basis of the recent successful launch of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule and their Falcon Heavy booster in 2018, Zubrin proposed using that capsule and those boosters in place of NASA hardware.


“Artemis 8” would “launch a crew to low Earth orbit [LEO] in Dragon using a Falcon 9. Then launch a Falcon Heavy, and rendezvous in LEO with its upper stage, which will still contain plenty of propellant. The Falcon Heavy upper stage [would] then [be] used to send the Dragon on Trans Lunar Injection (TLI), and potentially Lunar Orbit Capture (LOC) and Trans Earth Injection (TEI) as well.”


Zubrin laid out two further options for how the mission could be carried out, depending on how the Falcon Heavy booster was launched. Launching it without payload atop it would allow the proposed mission to “capture[d] into a ‘lowish’ lunar orbit and return to Earth”, with the upper stage acting as the engine for the entire mission. The second option would see the Falcon Heavy launched with a small propulsion stage (SPS) as a payload. In that option, the upper-stage would serve as the equivalent of the Saturn V’s third stage, the S-IVB, while the SPS would act as an analogue for the Apollo Service Module.


Further, Zubrin cited other factors that made the Crew Dragon a worthy substitute for Orion. In a piece for the Washington Post co-authored by former NASA engineer Homer Hickam (best known for his memoir Rocket Boys, the basis for the movie October Sky) on 22 June, 2020 ahead of the memo being sent, they made note of the fact that Crew Dragon was lighter, with a mass of 9.5 tons, compared to Orion’s 26.5. Crew Dragon having been designed for future re-entries from missions to Mars also meant that it was designed for re-entry temperatures higher than a lunar mission would be called upon to endure.


“We propose that a Crew Dragon first be sent in an Apollo 8-type flight around the moon as a demonstration,” Zubrin and Hickam wrote in their 22 June piece, “followed closely by a landing with a commercial lander.” They concluded with a question “for the Administration and Congress: Do you really want to reach the Moon by 2024?” For them, ”Artemis 8” was the go-to option.


How Do You Get to the Moon?

Almost as soon as Zubrin’s memo was presented to the public, issues with the proposal were noted. Among the most obvious was that SpaceX had only one launch pad capable of launching the boosters needed to carry off the proposal, that of LC-39A at the Kennedy Space Center. Something which would potentially require leaving the Falcon Heavy upper-stage in LEO for months, running the risk other propelland burn-off, among other concerns.


While SpaceX’s other Florida launch site, SLC-40, could potentially handle launching the Falcon 9 booster carrying the Crew Dragon aloft, the pad lacked the crew access arm. Its addition would make it impossible for a launch “as soon as this year” as Zubrin called for.


Other issues existed, as well. The upper-stage of the Falcon Heavy, while it had launched Elon Musk’s Tesla Roaster across the solar system, had not been rated for a crewed mission. Nor had it be proven on a mission profile similar to what Zubrin and Hickam were proposing. Nor did the SPS suggested for Zubrin’s second option exist. To make the end of the year deadline, an entirely new SPS would have to be built and flight-rated from scratch... in the midst of a pandemic.


In the case of Apollo 8, the Apollo command and service modules, as well as the Saturn V booster, all existed at the time that the decision was made to send its crew beyond Earth orbit.


Above all else, the rationale behind Zubrin’s plan and his analogy to Apollo 8 rang false to many. In 1968, NASA had been in a race with their counterparts in the Soviet space programme. The decision to send Apollo 8 into lunar orbit had as much to do with staying ahead of what US intelligence agencies reported were steps being taken for a Soviet flight around the Moon. A flight that, ultimately, never occurred due to the Kremlin being unwilling to launch cosmonauts to repeat the Zond lunar probe flights earlier in the year.


“Artemis 8”, as proposed by Zubrin, had no obvious purpose. The political climate around space had changed; indeed, while something of a new space race exists between the US and China, it was not advanced enough by the summer of 2020 to reach a stage for an Apollo 8 redeux. Nor did Zubrin’s call for the mission in the name of saving Artemis ring true, given that SLS had been a bi-partisan proposal from a Congress increasingly alien to such things.


Artemis to the Moon (at last!)

Beyond Zubrin’s memo and media coverage, “Artemis 8” went nowhere. In the end, Joe Biden defeated Trump in the 2020 presidential election. But the cancellation of Artemis and SLS that Zubrin, Hickam, and others in the space community failed to occur. Instead, the SLS carried Artemis I on its uncrewed trans-lunar mission launched in November 2022. The first crewed mission, Artemis II, had its crew announced in April 2023 with a prospective launch date set for 2025 at the time of writing.


In the short term at least, the fears behind the “Artemis 8” proposal failed to come to pass. But the idea of a crew around the Moon at the end of 2020, a year every bit as eventful as 1968, remains an intriguing possibility. One that, had it been proposed sooner, might well have come to pass, even if it had been less out of necessity than was realised at the time.





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Matthew Kresal is the author of the SLP book Our Man on the Hill. He has numerous books and anthologies that he has contributed to, and these can be found Here.



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