Returning to the Moon will require new and bigger rockets, one of which NASA will be testing this Friday and over the weekend. However, the test will be conducted under a veil of silence, supposedly to prevent copying. Officially, at least, this isn't because NASA fears another nation stealing a lead on them in Moon Race 2, but because someone could work out how to build better ballistic missiles. However, not everyone is convinced.
Although a lot of NASA's operations are now being outsourced to companies like SpaceX, it's still doing a lot in-house, including the development of the imaginatively named Space Launch System (SLS), an advanced version of the space shuttle.
SLS's first jobs will be to launch the uncrewed Artemis 1 mission and some small satellites, hopefully this northern summer. All going well, it will then launch a series of missions to explore more distant parts of the solar system, plus the next round of human lunar landings. Eventually, perhaps, it will launch the first humans to Mars.
Prior to the actual launch, the first SLS will undergo the equivalent of dress rehearsals – known as a wet dress rehearsal – where its supercold (cryogenic) propellants will be loaded and drained, and the pre-launch process run through.
NASA's Sharon Cobb described this as; “the most complex and exciting test we’ve done to date on the rocket.” The capacity to hold the process up before resuming will also be tested. NASA has scheduled this to start on Friday. All going well the wet dress rehearsal will finish on Sunday when the tanks are drained.
Historically, rocket launches, at least in America, have sought maximum attention as displays of national or corporate pride. NASA is promoting Artemis hard, for example through its "clickable rocket" website. So there was some surprise when a NASA press release announced on Tuesday; “The agency will provide live video of the rocket on the pad, without audio or commentary [...] There are no in-person media activities planned for wet dress rehearsal.”
When quizzed on this at a subsequent press conference. NASA's Tom Whitmeyer attributed this silencing to International Traffic in Arms Regulations designed to prevent advanced weapons systems from being replicated by America's enemies. Whitmeyer said knowing the timing of steps in the cryogenic preparation could help someone wanting to build a ballistic missile system.
It's understandable that such concerns are currently front of mind for US policymakers in a way they haven't been for a while. However, Gizmodo reports that not everyone is happy with this explanation.
On Twitter, the response was not positive.
Baylor listed all the private launch providers who broadcast their countdowns and noted; “Also cryogenics are generally terrible for ballistic missile systems.” Others pointed out how much more transparent NASA used to be.
McDowell, of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, told Gizmodo; “The problem with any such security mandate is that it is typically not being enforced by the people who have the necessary technical understanding to know what is actually helpful to others [...] so, it gets enforced wildly over-enthusiastically, to the point that the degree to which it impedes free communication is more harmful than any risk that it protects against.”
So does NASA know something its critics don't, or are they just being overly cautious? Alternatively, is there some other reason they want to keep aspects of the wet dress under wraps? It's at least possible NASA has drawn more attention to this rehearsal through this move than if they had let everyone hear the audio, a sort of ballistic equivalent of the Streisand Effect.
Perhaps some more information will leak (hopefully unlike the cryogenics), but most likely we will have to wait at least until the actual launch, planned for June, for clues to these questions.