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NASA is going back to the moon. What's different this time?

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

There's a new launch date for the Artemis I spacecraft. If everything goes according to plan, it'll take off Saturday afternoon. NASA hopes this mission will pave the way for humans to eventually return to the moon, which raises the question, why? Lori Garver is one person who's been asking critical questions about that. She was deputy administrator of NASA during the Obama administration. Thanks for joining us.

LORI GARVER: Thank you for having me.

SHAPIRO: Nearly 50 years after the last Apollo landing, why go back to the moon now?

GARVER: Well, you know, within the space community, this has been something they wanted to do since they left the moon. And I think one of the reasons we haven't is because we haven't answered that question. Today, NASA says it's because we're in a race with China. But, of course, we've won that race six times. Going back to the moon is, I think, a positive path. But I don't think we have well-articulated the purpose for spending the amounts of money that are now required.

SHAPIRO: Private space exploration companies are also trying to get to the moon. Do you think that should change NASA's calculus at all?

GARVER: Absolutely. Private space companies are actually part of this mission. Of course, they were part of Apollo as well. SpaceX has a contract to build the lunar lander, but they are also building a large launch vehicle that could get us there for a fraction of the cost of the government-owned and operated planned systems that have taken more than a decade and tens of billions of dollars. So this isn't an either-or.

SHAPIRO: Has the horse already left the barn? Is it too late for NASA to turn back?

GARVER: Well, the horse has not left the barn. I think that is the issue.

SHAPIRO: Oh, you mean, like, specifically, that Artemis didn't take off yet...

GARVER: Yes.

SHAPIRO: ...On schedule, as it was supposed to on Monday.

GARVER: Well, and it's not just this latest setback that is an issue. It's emblematic of why a program that was supposed to take five years has now taken nearly 12, and that was supposed to cost 20 billion has cost 43. That is something that I don't understand how the public will continue to support once there is a private sector option flying.

SHAPIRO: How much of this has to do with the desire to get to Mars?

GARVER: I think within NASA, Mars is the ultimate goal. I think that going to the moon is not required before you get to Mars, but it is certainly helpful and a place where you can learn again to operate at a distance. The goal of getting to Mars for many people is more exciting, but that is an order of magnitude more challenging.

SHAPIRO: If all of the time, money, resources being spent on a return to the moon were suddenly made available for something else, what would you like to see NACA expend its resources on?

GARVER: I think NASA could go back to the moon for significantly less resources, in a way that drives technology, which is what really returns to the nation and the planet. The money that they save for doing that could be spent on priorities like increasing their earth sciences programs, studying greenhouse gas emissions from space, helping us manage our resources on this planet. There are a lot of ways NASA can contribute to a better world, both here on Earth and beyond.

SHAPIRO: Decision-makers at NASA are not going to be surprised to hear the arguments you're making. You've made them, and others have made them. Why do you think they haven't won out?

GARVER: Well, I wrote a book, "Escaping Gravity," that just came out about this. I think, you know, no one's bad. It's just the status quo in Washington. Contractors already have jobs. They're going to argue for keeping those jobs. Their members of Congress want them to keep those jobs. And it just becomes sort of a do-over, when, in my view, we weren't established - we being NASA - to do the same thing again. We are supposed to be driving technologies. And so that's why I think many of us are critical of this rocket program because it really is '70s technology. And that is not the way we think it's best to go back to the moon.

SHAPIRO: That's Lori Garver, former deputy administrator of NASA. Thank you very much.

GARVER: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
Kai McNamee