Q&A: The Artemis space program
What the latest rocket launch means for NASA’s future.
On Saturday, NASA will make a second attempt to launch the uncrewed Orion spacecraft as part of the Artemis I mission, the first integrated test of the agency’s Space Launch System rocket, Orion and the ground systems at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
The mission paves the way for future lunar and deep-space exploration, with a crewed voyage to Mars as the next great leap for the space agency. According to NASA, over the course of the first Artemis mission, Orion will travel 280,000 miles from Earth and 40,000 miles beyond the moon. The Artemis II mission, slated for May 2024, will be the first crewed mission of Orion and will perform a flyby of the moon before returning to Earth. Artemis III, scheduled for 2025, is planned to land the first woman and the first person of color on the moon. They would be the first Americans on the moon in over 50 years.
Metropolitan State University of Denver’s Tanya Bulleigh, an affiliate professor in the Aviation and Aerospace Science Department and an MSU Denver graduate, was at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Monday when the first launch attempt was scrubbed after one of the four engines failed to reach proper temperature prior to launch.
First, can you describe what it’s like for an insider to be at a rocket launch?
It’s more like a party: Everyone’s super-happy and excited, and even though you’re a few miles away, you have a live feed and you can see the NASA television. Then, you get to that T-minus five seconds and they light the engines and you feel a change in the energy. Once the solid boosters light, with the noise and the sounds, you can literally feel the ground shake. I almost started crying; it is really hard not to get emotional. The (immensity) of that much power just humbles you, especially when you know the people sitting in there and they’re basically sitting on top of a bomb. The launch is a controlled explosion.
Why is the Artemis program important, and what does it signify for NASA?
There’s a lot of misconception out there that NASA’s dead. Up until the excitement about Artemis got going, there was this idea that there was nothing going on with the space program, and that’s just not true. The new Artemis program has been a long time coming. If the ultimate goal is to put people on Mars, we have to practice by putting people safely on the moon. Mars is a lot further off than people think it is. NASA can get someone home from the moon a lot faster than they can get them home from Mars if they have to.
How does the competition for private space exploration influence the NASA space program?
I don’t think it’s bad. I find it very similar to the early days of aviation, when the earliest pilots were in the post office and airmail gradually developed into a commercial cargo program. Then, the demand for people to travel by air became greater and greater. And now, NASA takes bids from private companies to resupply the space station. It’s exactly how it happened for aviation.
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Would you go on a mission to Mars?
Absolutely not. I have always wanted to be an astronaut. I knew that’s what I wanted to do my whole life, and I worked super-hard to get there. For the hiring of a traditional shuttle crew, I check all the boxes. But NASA is not putting a traditional shuttle crew in the Orion capsule (for a Mars mission). They’re putting survivors in there. They want people who climb Mount Everest and live in Antarctica for six months. It’s a nine-month trip there and a nine-month trip back. That’s a really long road trip.
You earned your Bachelor of Science in Aviation Management from MSU Denver. How does the University’s Aviation and Aerospace Science program tie in with the momentum to expand space exploration like never before?
Jeff Forrest, the chair of the department, has held a huge vision for building the Aerospace Department. He’s really expanded it, and it’s not even the same program I attended. It’s absolutely putting the students who graduate from it into the industry. They’re moving into these positions where they’re shaping how we explore space, and they’re living their dreams.