Fifty years after the end of the Apollo program, humanity is once again heading for the Moon.
In July, Congress passed the CHIPS Act, a law to incentivize the manufacture of computer chips in the United States. Tucked into that mega-bill was an official authorization for NASA’s next-generation Moon program, which the agency calls Artemis.
What’s more, this isn’t a far-future, decades-away pipe dream. It’s happening very soon. The first mission, Artemis 1, is scheduled to blast off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida in just a few weeks. The launch window is between August 29 and September 5, 2022.
Artemis 1 will be an uncrewed mission. It will travel to the Moon, loop around in an orbit, then return to Earth. Its main purpose is to test NASA’s replacements for the Space Shuttle: the Space Launch System heavy-lift rocket and the Orion spacecraft that will carry the crew of future missions.
If Artemis 1 succeeds, more missions will follow soon after. Artemis 2, which could launch as soon as May 2024, will send a human crew to perform a lunar flyby. Later that year, a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket will deploy the Lunar Gateway: a human-habitable space station in orbit around the Moon.
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Artemis 3, scheduled for 2025, will dock with the Lunar Gateway and land a crew of two at the Moon’s south pole, where they’ll stay and explore for about a week. It will be the first time humans have ever explored this region, and the first time humans have set foot on another celestial body since December 1972.
Beyond Artemis 3, the timeline is hazier, but there are more missions planned with even wilder ambitions. One is to build the Lunar Base Camp, humanity’s first honest-to-goodness Moon base. There are also drawing-board plans to use the Lunar Gateway as the launch point for the first crewed mission to Mars. The Moon’s south pole has reserves of water ice, which we can use to supply a permanent base and to electrolyze into rocket fuel for missions to Mars and beyond.
Even if timelines and budgets slip, as they inevitably do, all of this is now several giant steps closer to reality. It’s the first serious, sustained commitment we’ve made to human spaceflight in fifty years. I’m amazed that it hasn’t gotten more coverage. I know I get giddy when I contemplate it. (It recalls the Onion‘s greatest ever—and decidedly not work-safe—headline.)
Why do we go to space?
A skeptic might ask, why send human beings into space at all? We can’t survive there; there’s no chance of a self-sufficient colony any time soon. There’s no scientific mission humans are capable of that robots can’t do. It’s a spectacular expenditure of money and resources, all for the sake of a headline.
This cynical view holds that the Apollo program was merely a superpower showing off. It was a Cold War flex of our scientific acumen and military-industrial might to intimidate our Soviet rivals. (Carl Sagan observed that the astronauts left a plaque that reads, “We came in peace for all mankind”—congratulating ourselves for having no malicious intent toward a lifeless rock, while we were dropping thousands of tons of high explosives and toxic defoliants on the people of Vietnam.)
And it’s true, that was a factor in the planners’ thinking. Space exploration has always been motivated by national pride and bragging rights, as much as by pure disinterested curiosity.
However, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. If nations have to compete, this is one of the least destructive goals to compete over. In the past, rulers arm-wrestled over who had the biggest armies or the most lavish throne rooms, if not through outright war. Compared to the bloody mire that’s most of history, it’s a huge improvement to see who can flaunt the most scientific and technical expertise in the peaceful exploration of the cosmos.
The Artemis program is also a real opportunity for international cooperation. NASA is developing it together with the space agencies of Canada, Japan, and the European Union. Many more nations have signed the Artemis Accords, reaffirming the goals of free sharing of scientific knowledge gained from space missions.
Space exploration is non-partisan in a way that few other causes are. It’s one of the small number of ideas that’s popular among both Republicans and Democrats. In a time when the world is so divided, when we’re so inflamed by suspicion and hostility toward each other, it can only help to have something to unite around.