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NASA plans to launch a huge moon rocket but the price tag may impede its future

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Astronauts on the moon - that's what NASA wants to see in just a few years. On Monday, the agency plans to launch a huge moon rocket on its first test flight with no crew aboard. But as NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce reports, the rocket's big price tag has critics skeptical about its future.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Two, one, zero - we have liftoff.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: The last time NASA launched a space vehicle designed to take astronauts to the moon, it was 1972.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: And it's lighting up the area. It's just like daylight here at Kennedy Space Center. The Saturn V is moving off the pad.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Now a different rocket is on a launch pad there. It's 32 stories tall and more powerful than the Saturn V. But just like in the Apollo days, it's got a bell-shaped crew capsule perched on top.

BILL NELSON: When you look at the rocket, it almost looks retro.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Bill Nelson is NASA's administrator. There won't be any astronauts on this trip, but he says the capsule called Orion will travel over a million miles.

NELSON: To the moon and back and all kinds of orbits around the moon, testing this spacecraft.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: At its closest approach to the moon, Orion will be about 60 miles from the surface. NASA wants to put the first woman and the first person of color on the moon by 2025. Nelson says the moon is a steppingstone to Mars.

NELSON: And we're going back to the moon in order to learn to live, to walk, to survive.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: This rocket's been in the works for over a decade since NASA retired its aging space shuttles. The end of that program was a blow to the aerospace industry. Congress didn't want to see jobs lost. So lawmakers told NASA, build a massive new rocket and use parts from the shuttle. Charlie Bolden was the head of NASA back then. He expected this new rocket to start flying years ago.

CHARLIE BOLDEN JR: It's just taking much, much, much longer than I ever anticipated for a system that is somewhat complex, but it's not like we're building something totally new.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Building this rocket has also proved to be unexpectedly costly. NASA's inspector general, Paul Martin, recently told lawmakers that the first three flights will cost more than $4 billion each.

PAUL MARTIN: A price tag that strikes us as unsustainable.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Martin says NASA has to figure out how to rein costs in.

MARTIN: Otherwise, relying on such an expensive single-use rocket system will, in our judgment, inhibit, if not derail, NASA's ability to sustain its long-term human exploration goals to the moon and Mars.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Critics of the rocket point to another problem. In part because it's so expensive, this rocket won't fly very often. Lori Garver served as deputy administrator of NASA. She says even if this test flight goes perfectly...

LORI GARVER: They will still have to defend the rocket's cost. And more difficult, I think, is that there won't be another one for two years.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Meanwhile, there's this other rocket being rapidly developed by the private sector. The company SpaceX, which currently carries NASA's astronauts to the space station, decided to also build its own massive rocket - a stainless steel beast called Starship. Starship is designed to be both inexpensive and fully reusable. Garver says if it flies, that could spell the end for NASA's rocket and the Orion capsule.

GARVER: If Starship works, they will become redundant.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: But for now, they're waiting on the launch pad about to blast off towards the moon. Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Nell Greenfieldboyce is a NPR science correspondent.
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