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NASA sees our space future as both government and privately run

Top official spells out simply why America is going back to the Moon

Interview "There is no SpaceX without NASA," Thomas Zurbuchen, an associate administrator at the US space agency's Science Mission Directorate, told The Register this week as a Falcon 9 lurked in the background at Cape Canaveral.

Zurbuchen was not being combative – SpaceX boss Elon Musk has acknowledged the mutual debt between the two organizations himself.

The official pointed out the SpaceX vehicle and the tower being rapidly erected for SpaceX's Starship, a rocket that might be beaten into orbit by NASA's SLS rocket, although multiple mission scrubs make that very iffy at the moment.

The SLS was designed for the Americans' Artemis mission, which intends to put people back on the Moon some time this decade using private and government spacecraft. NASA's SLS will, it's hoped, lift astronauts from Earth and off to Moon's orbit, where SpaceX craft will land them onto the surface.

"This place here," Zurbuchen said of the launchpads on the Florida coast, "it tells you of the story of what happens when the government does something really ambitious, but is also supportive of the commercial ecosystem."

Zurbuchen went on to highlight private space companies, such as Relativity Space, due to make a launch this year, and Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin.

However, the inevitable question creeps up: what is the point of Artemis? With commercial space companies taking people off this planet, and the off-world robot missions making extraordinary discoveries, why go to all this effort – not least billions and billions of dollars – putting boots back on the lunar surface of all places?

"We do Artemis for three reasons," said Zurbuchen. "There is, without a doubt, a reason to do science … a second one is a reason to inspire, and the third one is to show national and international leadership."

The Apollo missions, he said, visibly achieved at least the second and third points, with Neil Armstrong famously sticking a US flag into the Moon's regolith and leaving footprints on the surface. Ergo, that's a good enough reason for the US to do the same again.

Zurbuchen next argued it's useful to have astronauts out in space, even on the Moon, as humans are a little more flexible than robots, pointing out that the Mars Perseverance rover spent almost a week at a standstill while engineers assessed some small debris detected on its equipment. It had to be stopped and instructed what to do next, and the results studied, before work could continue.

"That's because we are talking to a robot," Zurbuchen said. "A human there would have spent one minute on this and learned the same thing."

Zurbuchen joined the agency in 2016, when the project to build the Space Launch System rocket for Artemis was well underway. He was quick to praise the international team that had managed to get the monster from drawing board to launchpad.

He's also looking to a future featuring jaunts to Mars using technology derived from the SLS, which at the time of this interview was not too far away.

Zurbuchen was keen to talk up the virtue of missions both ongoing or in the near future, including the first results from the James Webb Space Telescope or what might be discovered by an upcoming Mars sample return mission, also to be undertaken with ESA. "Our European partners," he said, "are our most trusted partners of all the work we're doing."

And will NASA help out those same European pals and their stalled ExoMars rover program?

"We have had discussions with [the] Europeans," he said, "and right now the ball is really with the Europeans. We want them to figure out what they want to do and we stand ready.

"We have had a team working on this, but our good European friends really need to take the time. European decision-making involves a lot of countries, and what we don't want to do is in any way affect that. It's really up to them." ®

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