The Apollo astronauts are elderly and dwindling, and the Artemis astronauts haven't yet left Earth's atmosphere. There's only a narrow window of time remaining when different generations of space explorers have a chance to meet.
Frank Borman has died at the age of 95. Borman was the commander of Apollo 8, the first crewed spaceflight to orbit the Moon, which happened on Christmas Eve, 1968.
Although they didn’t land or walk on the Moon, Borman and his fellow astronauts took one of the most famous photographs ever: the Earthrise image that showed our pale blue-and-white marble hanging above the lunar horizon, surrounded by the infinite void of space.
As Borman said of the experience:
“The Earth looked so lonely in the Universe,” Borman said in a NASA oral history. “It’s the only thing with color.”“Frank Borman, commander of the first mission to orbit the Moon, has died..” Stephen Clark, Ars Technica, 10 November 2023.
With Borman’s passing, there are only eight Apollo astronauts still alive, out of an initial 24. Five of them are in their 90s.
Artemis and the dwindling sands of time
After a fifty-year gap, NASA has begun new lunar missions under the banner of Artemis. And it’s not a moment too soon.
Artemis 1 launched in November 2022. It was an uncrewed mission, testing the new Space Launch System and the Orion capsule. The mission went off as smoothly as we could have hoped for, successfully orbiting the Moon and making a safe return to Earth.
Artemis 2 is scheduled to launch in November 2024 with a crew of four. Like Apollo 8, the mission plan is to orbit the Moon and return to Earth without landing. Artemis 3, scheduled for 2025, will land astronauts at the Moon’s south pole. But these dates are still tentative, and they’re at the mercy of weather, technological problems, cost overruns, and bureaucratic schedule slip.
In one sense, there’s no rush. The Moon has been our companion for four billion years. It isn’t going anywhere. No mission objectives are at risk if we wait a little longer.
But on a human scale, there is a reason for urgency. Namely, it’s been five decades since any human orbited or walked on the Moon, and the surviving Apollo astronauts are elderly. Statistically, we only have a few years before none of them are left.
The United States is the only nation that’s landed human beings on the Moon. Although China and others are catching up, the U.S. is still the only one that has any chance of making a return voyage in that timeframe.
If two generations of Moon explorers are ever going to meet, this is our only shot. Will the Artemis astronauts get a chance to shake hands with their predecessors? Will they be able to swap stories and anecdotes? Will they be united by that shared experience that only a tiny handful of human beings have ever had?
If we delay, we’ll be letting that heritage lapse. The thread of memory and continuity that connects one generation to the next will be broken. That wouldn’t be the end of space exploration, of course. But it would be like a runner in an Olympic relay finding no one to hand the torch off to, and watching the flame die out. You can always relight it later and continue… but it’s not the same.
Why we should go back
Humans are great explorers and travelers. That’s part of what made us successful as a species, what drove us to spread out across the planet. By taking the next step into space, we’d be heeding that spirit of adventure and discovery that’s beckoned us throughout the generations—from Africans who walked into other continents, to Polynesians who crossed the ocean on outrigger canoes, to Native Americans who braved the Bering land bridge.
Colonization is a term that’s acquired ugly connotations. But the fault of past colonizers isn’t that they wanted to explore or travel or discover new places. It’s that they “discovered” places where people were already living and then proclaimed the right to conquer them.
This isn’t a concern in space exploration. The Moon, Mars and the rest of the solar system are true terra nullius, in a way that Australia and the Americas weren’t. Mars might have its own native microbes—and if so, that would be an epochal discovery, with profound significance for the question of our uniqueness in the universe. But other than that, these worlds have no ecosystems to despoil, no inhabitants to subjugate. There’s no harm we can do there.
Besides, we’re nowhere close to establishing a permanent presence on any world other than our own. For now, at least, we’d only be making brief visits. If we go, it will be to learn and to explore, not to settle.
Should space exploration be a priority?
You could argue, as you can always argue in any question of priorities, that it would be better to spend this money on things that more directly benefit humans. On the other hand, if nations have to compete for prestige, this is the right way to do it.
Rather than pouring our intelligence into coming up with new ways to kill each other, or new things to sell to each other, we can spend that energy on science and the quest for knowledge. There are no weapons in space, nor are there riches. If we go, it will be purely for exploration’s sake.
The dream of space unites us. It draws our gazes upward. It fires our imaginations with a sense of unbounded possibility. It makes tangible what we instinctively sense every time we look up at a starry sky: We’re not just part of nature, or part of the Earth. We’re part of the cosmos. And it’s our destiny to return there some day.