UPDATE: Artemis 1, the first stage of a mission to return people to the surface of the Moon, was originally scheduled to launch on Monday August 29 at 8:33am EDT. That launch has been pushed back due to a failed engine bleed 40 minutes prior to launch. The next available window for launch is September 2. OnlySky will update this story as information becomes available.
When Neil Armstrong first took his famous steps on the lunar surface, the mission was named for the Greek god Apollo. Now, it will be Apollo’s sister, Artemis, bringing humanity back to our nearest celestial body.
The rocket launching on the 29th [ED: see UPDATE above] has no human crew but a few test dummies, including a Snoopy doll in a space suit and a Shaun the Sheep doll. While this provides some levity to the mission, the entire enterprise is very serious, being the culmination of decades of planning, work, testing, and final checks. This flight, lasting for weeks, will not only test the various systems, but will test our very will to return to the Moon.
Humanity has not been to the lunar surface since Apollo 17, which landed on and returned from the Moon in 1972. Fifty years have passed since boots have been on the heavenly ground. No other country, let alone a corporation, has been able to achieve what engineers in the United States did during the Nixon Administration. But even the US has not seen fit to invest in a return to the Moon, let alone to stay there. That is, not until recently.
After the destruction of the Space Shuttle Columbia in 2003, the Bush Administration declared a goal to re-energize NASA and bring people back to the Moon and then to Mars. This didn’t go far, and the Obama Administration almost killed the entire idea. In the end, the original plans from the mid-2000s were re-incorporated into a new rocket system, a new capsule, and a new plan.
The machine that will return first probes and then people to the Moon is the Space Launch System, or SLS. Hardly an imaginative name. SLS recycles numerous parts from the Space Shuttle; its main engines are literally the same as the shuttle itself, and the solid rocket boosters on the side are also from previous shuttle missions. This helps make the missions cheaper and rely on tested technology, but there is still a big price tag for even this Moon flyby, let alone all of the planned missions to get people back to where we were fifty years ago. NASA has already spent tens of billions of dollars, and billions more will be required to achieve the goals it has been tasked with by Congress.
The missions that are currently funded go into 2027, and more missions beyond that date are on the drawing board. A few aspects of the plans:
Artemis 1 is the main test of the SLS, the Orion capsule, and the dangers astronauts may risk in the longer-duration missions that are planned. If things go well, astronauts will not spend a matter of hours on the Moon, but days or even weeks.
Artemis 2, which will launch in 2024 if Artemis 1 goes well, will have a crew that orbits but does not land on the Moon. This is reminiscent of Apollo 8. In 2025, Artemis 3 will take a crew to the Moon. Using a lander developed by SpaceX, people will walk (or hop) on the Moon again.
Artemis 4 and 5 will launch and crew a space station for the Moon, called the Lunar Gateway, a hub for both scientific experiments and for easier access to and from the lunar surface. This will also be the first space station not orbiting the Earth. This will perhaps make it easier to construct our first living quarters on the surface, which is in future NASA plans.
So Moonbase Alpha is coming—just a bit behind schedule.
For any space enthusiast, this all sounds amazing. And the technology needed to pull this off is incredible. Computing power alone is well beyond anything that existed on the Apollo missions, and the joint work between NASA and SpaceX getting people to and from the Moon is a fascinating partnership.
The “cool” factor of the mission is undeniable. This is the bedrock of any future sci-fi reality.
But is it worthwhile?
Again, tens of billions of dollars are needed to make this happen. There is no direct economic benefit—we are not going to drill for oil during Artemis 3. The reasons for going back there, as given in this NPR article, are more inspirational or aspirational. Yes, it will be a good stepping-stone for getting people to Mars. But that pushes the question one step: why do we want to go to Mars? Reasons to go to Mars include inspiration for future scientists and engineers, the idea that we might develop new technologies, and the hope that we will learn a lot of science both on the Moon and Mars. Scientists are especially looking to learn the history of these bodies.
But is Congress really spending billions for the sake of inspiration and exploration, or is there another reason? Of course, these space missions mean jobs, jobs, jobs. Every member of Congress wants to get money to their districts so they can get votes and keep their seats. On a global front, there is the worry that China will get to the Moon before NASA and the United States can, so there is also some level of nationalism behind the goals.
In other words, this is starting to look like the 1960s space race all over again. If that is so, then the Artemis missions may go the way of its brother Apollo’s missions, with enthusiasm dying away after the competition is beaten. When the US successfully landed people on the Moon in 1969, it was exciting. The second time, less so. In a matter of months, enthusiasm for Moon missions fell like a meteor. If the reasons to go back to the Moon have the same reasons now, they might fall down again for the exact same reasons.
So, why should we go back? Either as Americans or just as humans, why go to the Moon, and then to Mars?
Some will talk of humanity’s future. If we live on multiple worlds, our chances of survival increase. If a catastrophe happens on Earth, we’d still have our Martian cousins. This fits in with the larger moral theory of longtermism—the idea that future generations have moral worth. But not everyone follows such a moral philosophy, and, to motivate a person now, we need a reason to do something of value in the here and now.
It is true that working on technology that can keep people alive in deep space will help lead to new innovations in other sectors. For example, the demand for computer chips in the Apollo missions helped boost the entire computer business sector—Silicon Valley may not have come to exist without the initial needs of NASA.
However, this sort of spending for spinoffs does not necessarily mean we should spend it on space travel. Would there not be spinoff technologies in developing a new drill that could get cargo below the crust of the Earth? Probably so, but does that mean it’s a good investment? We might then ask, what is the value in the mission itself that makes it the best thing to spend the money on?
To answer that question, it seems we are in much more subjective territory. Perhaps we would have just as much direct economic value making the deepest hole as we would sending people into deep space. But it also seems like there is much more enthusiasm for people on the Moon than digging deep holes. Indeed, there is arguably far more inspiration to be found in the heavens than in the depths. Though don’t say that to a volcanologist.
This might be the best reason we can have for going to space. Perhaps at some point in the future, the Moon and Mars will have commercial value, but that’s not really why we want to go there. We want to become a civilization that walks among the stars. Such a version of humanity is one with greater ambition, with magnificent dreams, with hope. It is such a humanity that can look back on the Earth itself and see it for what it really is: one small part of a grander universe into which we can only take baby steps right now. A humanity that can emerge from the gravitational bounds of this planet is a more amazing humanity, one that sees value in what it can accomplish, not merely in what it can earn or exploit.
Space is full of our dreams and utopias. It’s also filled with our fears. Such is the nature of dreams. And make no mistake, there will be considerable danger in space travel for decades to come. But if I think of what the future may bring, it is a civilization that is too big to stay crowded on one planet, bickering about why we cannot grasp the stars we see in the sky every night.
I might not be able to be one of those travelers to the planets, but if I want that future for any children or grandchildren I may have, I and everyone else has to want that future. Personally, I want us to be able to travel through the solar system and see its wonders, explore its secrets, and live in ways unlike those which we have done before. And if enough of us want the same thing, we can make it happen.
If you want to see humanity grow, do what the people of the Apollo generation failed to do: pay attention and stay interested. This must be for more than national pride. We need to want something more.
Dr. Aaron Adair is a scientist, trained in physics and education theory, as well as a scholar in the areas of history, ancient science, and religion. He has worked at various colleges and schools, done research at CERN and the SETI Institute, and has publications cited and discussed by scholars around the world.