When returning to the moon, politics – and fear of weapons in space – is part of the discussion

Astronaut Christina Koch, in blue NASA jacket with back to camera, between U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen and Concord Mayor Byron Champlin during a roundtable discussion concerning the Artemis return-to-moon project, held at the McAuliffe-Shepard Discovery Center, May 6, 2024.

Astronaut Christina Koch, in blue NASA jacket with back to camera, between U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen and Concord Mayor Byron Champlin during a roundtable discussion concerning the Artemis return-to-moon project, held at the McAuliffe-Shepard Discovery Center, May 6, 2024. NASACourtesy

Astronaut Christina Koch, in blue NASA jacket, answers children’s question at the McAuliffe-Shepard Discovery Center on Monday. She stands between U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen and Concord Mayor Byron Champlin.

Astronaut Christina Koch, in blue NASA jacket, answers children’s question at the McAuliffe-Shepard Discovery Center on Monday. She stands between U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen and Concord Mayor Byron Champlin. David Brooks / Monitor staff

By DAVID BROOKS

Monitor staff

Published: 05-06-2024 3:39 PM

Modified: 05-06-2024 5:20 PM


NASA’s return-to-the-moon program Artemis has 18 New Hampshire companies and institutions supplying products or services, from temperature sensors to gaskets to research projects, so it was no surprise that business was featured when astronaut Christina Koch swung by the Discovery Center for a visit Monday.

“We are actually starting a new industry  … a low-earth-orbit economy,” said Koch, speaking to a dozen people including representatives of firms from Hudson, Dover and Rumney during a round-table discussion. She talked about NASA’s use of the private company SpaceX to shuttle astronauts to the International Space Station, in which the government agency is acting as a contractor rather than owner for the first time, as well as the importance of traditional sub-contractors such as those in New Hampshire.

Koch is one of four crew members selected for Artemis II, the first crewed launch of the Artemis program designed to return the U.S. to the moon, with a goal of establishing a human base there as a step toward human missions to Mars. She has spent more time in space than any woman due to her three stints on the International Space Station, which included six spacewalks.

But during the 45-minute session it was politics rather than business – including war, famously called “politics by other means” – that really drove the conversation.

U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, who brought Koch to a Manchester middle school and the Discovery Center on Monday’s tour, talked about her dual positions on the Senate Appropriations Committee, which oversees funding for NASA among other things, as well as the Armed Services Committee.

The latter, she said, gave her insight into “the other aspect of what’s happening in space right now,” including a race to the moon against China, which has become a major space-travel nation in a short time, and concern about Russia’s intention, since the leaders say it will deploy a nuclear-powered anti-satellite weapon into Earth’s orbit.

“I think we all ought to be concerned,” she said. “The exploration piece from NASA is even more  important because it gives us more information as we think about how to keep space from being weaponized. … Everything that you all are doing has greater significance now given the other race in space, which is what is going to happen in space, how are we going to keep it open, keep it weapons-free.”

More down-to-earth politics also showed up as Shaheen criticized Republicans in Congress for blocking federal budgets, hurting funding for Artemis along with many other federal programs. 

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“The biggest obstacle to what we’re trying to do in space is … the ability of Congress to get a budget on time and continue to provide the resources that NASA needs to do the mission,” she said, noting that the budget this year and next will be lower than 2023 and pointing out that China put a lander on the far side of the moon, a first, during a U.S. government shutdown. “We’re looking at the competition, in China. They don’t have that limitation.”

While not responding to the political details, Koch agreed that certainty is important to the Artemis program. “We have to have a known future stability for what is going to be procured … The business reasons and business costs in terms of certainty, we have the same thing at NASA. The cost (increase)  is more than just linear when you have delays.”

Bruce Bond, president of Jackson Bond Enterprises in Dover, talked about the business difficulties caused by a lack of consistency. His company makes specialized seals for windows on Orion spacecraft, which will carry people to the moon, and is developing huge inflatable “wings” that can be used to slow down used engines re-entering Earth’s atmosphere as well as potentially helping a spaceship land on Mars.

These items require a specialized material to withstand huge heat, which is difficult to get and would require a large addition to the facility in order to process it at scale.

“We don’t have any commitments … that there’s going to be a way to pay for that. How do I invest 2 or 3 million (dollars) if all of a sudden they go, ‘Oops, the contract is gone’?” he said.

Difficulties with funding as well as supply-chain issues left over from the pandemic shutdown have pushed back the Artemis schedule. The plan to have a crew orbit the moon is now set for September 2025, with landing astronauts on the moon planned for September 2026.

The first mission to the planned Gateway space station orbiting the moon is aiming for 2028.