Apollo to Artemis: Why America is betting big on space missions of the private sector

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WASHINGTON - A private Houston-based company is set this week to lead a mission to the Moon which, if successful, will mark America’s first lunar landing since the end of the Apollo era five decades ago.

Reputation will be on the line when Intuitive Machines’ Nova-C spaceship will launch atop a SpaceX rocket on Feb 14, following recent completed touchdowns by China, India and Japan.

So why entrust such tasks to the commercial sector, especially after an attempt by another company with similar goals, Astrobotic, failed just last month?

The answer lies in the way Nasa has fundamentally reorganized itself for Artemis, the agency’s flagship Moon-to-Mars program.

During the Cold War, the space agency was handed blank checks and managed industrial contracts down to the last bolt – but the new paradigm bets on America’s mighty market economy to deliver breakthroughs at a fraction of historic costs.

While the current approach has borne some fruit, it also carries the risk of the United States falling behind its principal space rival, China, in achieving major milestones – namely the next crewed mission to the Moon, and getting the first rocks back from Mars.

SpaceX success

The focus on fledgling companies under Nasa’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) initiative builds on the example set by the meteoric rise of SpaceX, which was derided in its startup phase as reckless, but is now arguably the agency’s favourite contractor.

Scott Pace, a former member of the National Space Council, told AFP that Nasa had intentionally adopted a policy that prioritized “more shots on goal” at lower costs.

“The reliability that SpaceX has now is as a result of painfully blowing up multiple rockets along the way,” he said.

SpaceX launches are currently the only way astronauts launch from US soil, following the end of the Nasa-led space shuttle program in 2011 that left Nasa reliant on Russia’s Soyuz rockets.

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