The oracle that predicted the launch of SLS in 2023 has thoughts on Artemis III

The oracle that predicted the launch of SLS in 2023 has thoughts on Artemis III

NASA's Artemis I mission is due to launch this year.  But will Artemis III also fly on the Space Launch System rocket?
Enlarge / NASA’s Artemis I mission is due to launch this year. But will Artemis III also fly on the Space Launch System rocket?

Trevor Mahlman

On a chilly night in early December 2017, I met with a few industry sources at a southeast Houston restaurant called Nobi. Located just down the road from the Johnson Space Center, Nobi serves Vietnamese cuisine and has an amazing range of draft beers. We participated.

These space industry figures are not well known outside of the company, but they are very knowledgeable and discerning observers of spaceflight. And perhaps most importantly for me as a journalist, they were particularly forthright in this context.

They were in town for a space conference, so we chatted, chatted, and shopped. At the bottom of our cups, speculation turned to NASA’s Space Launch System rocket. When, I asked, do you really think the big rocket will be launched?

One of those sources responded with a startling prediction. “Probably around 2023,” he said.

At the time, NASA was predicting a 2019 launch date for the rocket, just two years away. The material was almost finished. So a prediction of six years of work remaining seemed pretty out of left field. But I was slightly drunk, and what good is Twitter if not a bit of talk? So I grabbed my phone and tweeted his prediction:

The prediction didn’t get much attention at the time, and it was widely dismissed as a bad joke. But over the years, in some little corners of the web, this tweet has become something of an internet legend, a wild prediction that might come true.

It also angered supporters of NASA’s big rocket. In 2020, the r/SpaceLaunchSystem subreddit discovered the tweet, and some readers were downright angry. User ‘insane_gravy’ wrote, “Eric Berger proves once again that anyone can be a space ‘journalist’ because there are no standards.” Well I hope crazy_gravy really likes the sauce because the Space Launch System rocket and its Artemis I mission are now due to launch on Wednesday, just eight days before Thanksgiving.

However, the source is unlikely to have been proven correct. Given that we are less than two months away from the new year, we are already “around” 2023. Moreover, the 2023 fiscal year began five weeks ago.

A second prediction

Three years later, in October 2020, this same source made another statement crazy enough that I decided to tweet about it again. The prediction concerned NASA’s next decision on a contractor to build a “human landing system” to take its astronauts to the Moon as part of the Artemis program.

At the time, SpaceX, a “national team” led by Blue Origin, and a third bidder led by Dynetics were competing for one or two NASA contracts. The conventional thinking in the space industry was that Blue Origin would win the prime contract because it led a team of new and traditional aerospace companies and came up with a design to NASA specifications. We thought maybe Dynetics or SpaceX would get a side contract.

Far from offering a conventional lunar lander, SpaceX wanted to use its huge Starship vehicle as a lunar lander. This option was somewhat discounted by the space industry because Starship was an experimental and risky approach. There were also fears that if NASA chose SpaceX, it would put Starship on the critical path for the Artemis Moon program. This meant that for the Artemis program to succeed, Starship had to work. And if Starship worked, that would mean NASA had funded a rocket that was better than its own expendable and expensive Space Launch System rocket.

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