Artemis I Sparks A New Space Age
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Fifty years after the last Apollo mission, the Artemis program promises to build humanity’s first home beyond Earth. Union ForwardRead More
“Artemis generation, this is for you.” — Charlie Blackwell-Thompson, Artemis Launch Director
On December 11, 1972, two NASA astronauts became the last people to step foot on the Moon for more than half a century.
Apollo 17 sent Commander Gene Cernan and geologist Harrison Schmitt to the lunar surface for three days, marking the first time a geologist traveled to the Moon. The goals of the final Apollo mission were to collect material from an impact that occurred nearly four billion years ago and to look for signs of historical volcanic activity.
The end of the Apollo program marked the beginning of an era that saw declining interest from both lawmakers and the general public in U.S. ambitions in space. The failure of the Space Shuttle program to construct a fully reusable rocket ended up plaguing NASA for years with high costs and low returns.
In the 2010s, whispers of a resurgence in space exploration began to coalesce behind conquering the key to the space age: the Moon.
The force of gravity that a rocket must overcome—and the amount of fuel required—to achieve liftoff is far higher on our home world than it is on the Moon. Thus, a permanent presence on the Moon will eliminate one of the most significant barriers to human space exploration.
Fifty years after Apollo’s last breath, the launch of Artemis I marks the beginning of America’s long-awaited return to the stars.
The space program has yet to reach the invigorating heights of the 1960s.
The goals of the Artemis program are the same goals that ambitious NASA leaders have pursued since the 1969 Moon landing.
During his 23-month tenure, NASA’s third Administrator Thomas Paine sought to wield momentum from the Moon landing to implement bold new programs that would have sent the United States rocketing into the skies for decades to come. He was nominated to his post in 1968 by President Lyndon Johnson, who tasked him with ensuring that the U.S. landed an astronaut on the Moon before the decade was over.
After a successful moon landing and the inauguration of a new president, Paine had a chance to lay out his long-term vision. He drew up plans for the construction of a space station to orbit Earth and a Moon base capable of sending an astronaut to the surface of Mars by 1981.
These plans, however, were quickly rejected by President Richard Nixon. The president did not share Paine’s ambitions, ultimately presiding over a decline in NASA’s budget. Instead, his administration in 1972 approved the Space Shuttle program.
The Shuttle was originally intended as a rapidly reusable rocket capable of transporting astronauts and cargo to a future space station. It was selected amid funding contractions at NASA and a dynamic debate surrounding the goals of the post-Apollo era, a debate that was lost by those like Paine who had been eager to preserve the momentum for space exploration of the 1960s.
When funding for the program grew increasingly insecure even after its selection, the Air Force stepped in to keep it running. Upon falling under the purview of the Air Force, design changes slashed the reusability of the Shuttle and sent the total cost skyrocketing. The program’s failure to commit to the rocket’s full reusability inhibited its potential to innovate much at all.
The years that followed witnessed growing indifference to the space program from lawmakers responsible for the budget. Their interest was largely limited to national security concerns, and events like the 1986 Challenger disaster that killed seven crew members dispirited people who wanted a more robust space program.
1998 saw the launch of the International Space Station (ISS), where space agencies from five nations—America, Russia, Canada, Japan, and Europe—have worked together in scientific inquiry. While the ISS was an admirable accomplishment in science and international cooperation, the space program has yet to reach the invigorating heights of the 1960s.
In early 2004, President George W. Bush announced a new vision for NASA, laying out lofty goals in the hopes of reviving its ambitions in space:
“Today … the President committed the United States to a long-term human and robotic program to explore the solar system, starting with a return to the Moon that will ultimately enable future exploration of Mars and other destinations.”
His father had similarly called for a permanent presence on the Moon capable of sending astronauts to the Martian surface during his tenure.
The NASA Authorization Act of 2005 passed by Congress directed the institution to do just what the president called for, and the Constellation program was born. A 2020 deadline was set to return astronauts to the Moon with the intention of developing a sustained human presence from there. Alongside an emerging lunar hub for commerce and science was to be the second stage of NASA’s directive: a Moon base capable of sending crewed missions to Mars.
In order to succeed, the program would need five key elements: a launch vehicle, a cargo launch vehicle, a capsule for the astronauts, a lunar lander, and equipment to probe the lunar surface. Each element promised a unique challenge that would ultimately take years to resolve, with help from private sector companies including SpaceX and The Boeing Company.
Additional funding for Constellation was slated to open up with the planned retirement of the Space Shuttle in the early 2010s, although design and construction of a launch vehicle to replace the Shuttle called Ares I was an essential component of the program.
If Ares I was incomplete by the time of the Shuttle’s retirement, the U.S. would have no means of transporting its astronauts to space.
Four years after the program’s launch, newly-inaugurated President Barack Obama ordered a review of NASA’s human spaceflight plans. The Augustine Committee was established, named after committee chairman and former Lockheed Martin CEO Norman Augustine.
The committee’s conclusion was less than glowing for the Constellation program, identifying several reasons for apprehension.
Chief among the concerns presented was the incessant flow of delays that clouded the program’s long-term outlook. Of the five components necessary, Constellation was deemed to have made progress on only two: the Ares I launch vehicle and the Orion capsule. None were complete.
Any lingering hopes of a resurgence for the space program shrank with the cancellation of the Constellation program and the Ares I launch vehicle in 2011. The 2009 committee of aerospace executives, former astronauts and professors resolved that the issues had been there from the start:
“Since Constellation’s inception, the program has faced a mismatch between funding and program content. Even when the program was first announced, its timely execution depended on funds becoming available from the retirement of the Space Shuttle (in 2010) and the decommissioning of the ISS (in early 2016).”
Augustine’s warning was realized just two years later, when the retirement of the Space Shuttle in 2011 meant that American astronauts headed for the ISS had no choice but to fly on Russian Soyuz spacecraft.
An audit released in 2019 revealed that since 2011, the U.S. had paid the Russian Federation $3.9 billion for 70 seats on Soyuz rockets. NASA’s failure to revitalize its space program left this situation in place until 2020, when SpaceX’s Dragon 2 began transporting astronauts.
The Obama administration pursued modest increases to NASA’s budget that allowed for further development of the Orion capsule, a survivor of the Constellation era that is set to be used in the Artemis I launch. An emergency escape capsule was also prioritized during the 2010s as a means of avoiding reliance on Russia in the event of an evacuation from the ISS, though for nine years the U.S. was not capable of transporting astronauts into orbit.
Constellation’s failure dampened enthusiasm for additional investment in space as progress came only in a tepid fashion. However, progress was indeed being made as private and public interest climbed steadily over the years.
A decades-long trend of sinking interest and investment in space reversed in the 2010s, and the reverse is likely to stick. Powerful countries and asteroid-mining companies are beginning to look at space as a potential wild west of wealth and resources.
By the time a new president arrived in 2017, American interests in space were quietly beginning to coalesce behind a clear vision.
The Moon is the key unlocks a new realm of space exploration for humanity.
The 2017 launch of the Artemis program offers a familiarly adventurous vision for the U.S. space program.
President Donald Trump hailed the announcement as a breakthrough, laying out once again the goals that his predecessors had called for in the decades before his tenure:
“[The Artemis program] marks a first step in returning American astronauts to the Moon for the first time since 1972.
This time, we will not only plant our flag and leave our footprints — we will establish a foundation for an eventual mission to Mars,”
America’s return to the Moon was formalized into a three-step plan. First, Artemis I will orbit the Moon as an uncrewed test flight of NASA’s Space Launch System to replace the Space Shuttle, and its completed Orion spacecraft.
Artemis II is planned to follow in 2024, which will be the first crewed flight of Orion, carrying four astronauts to complete a lunar orbit.
Finally, Artemis III is planned for launch in 2025, when two astronauts would become the first people in fifty-three years to set foot on the lunar surface.
Launched in the shadow of the Constellation program’s collapse, it is notable that the Artemis program survived a presidential transition of power. The launch of Artemis I signals a deeper commitment to a resurgence in the space program than familiar promises that never materialized.
As is common with NASA’s efforts, delays to the timeline are likely. Artemis I was originally scheduled to launch on August 29, and a series of delays ultimately postponed it by more than two months. However, public and private interests that developed in the 2010s have signaled a commitment to a long-term return to space.
The goal of subsequent Artemis missions will be the construction of a U.S. Moon base. The transport of materials and crews will be facilitated by the Lunar Gateway, a space station to orbit the Moon scheduled for completion in 2024.
A U.S. Moon base would elevate scientific research and entice private enterprise, though NASA’s final destination remains the red planet.
In order to leave Earth’s atmosphere, a rocket needs a tremendous amount of fuel. The energy required to overcome the force of gravity remains one of the most challenging obstacles to human space travel. However, the atmosphere of the Moon is a far thinner than Earth’s. The amount of fuel required for lift-off is a fraction of what it would be on our home world. Thus, the Moon is the key that unlocks a new era of space exploration for humanity.
A lunar base will provide NASA and private companies the ability to conceivably reach Mars and return safely. The early years of the Artemis program will establish the infrastructure necessary for us to more closely reach that goal.
A timeline for a crewed Mars mission is difficult to estimate as several major steps preclude a human landing. The path to that goal will crystallize as steps are taken that bring the concept closer to our reach.
On November 16, 2022, the first step was taken.
The launch of Artemis I is a starting pistol in the second space race. Unlike the space race of the 1960s, the goal in the 2020s is to establish a permanent presence outside our home world.
As the Artemis program and its goals become recognized by more people, the historical gravity of establishing colonies outside of Earth will feel both daunting and exhilarating. Popular interest and investment will only increase as space becomes more reachable.
The timeliness of the Artemis missions is both in the hands of lawmakers responsible for its budget and space industry leaders. Although private enterprise has signaled a commitment to space regardless of NASA’s success, an effort by government to stimulate the space program would be in America’s long-term national interest.
A leader who champions our return to the stars and our promise to land an astronaut on another world would serve to energize the initiative and to inspire a population riven by an endless culture war.
President John F. Kennedy championed that ambitious cause in the 1960s and offered Americans a guiding national purpose through a politically tumultuous and violent decade. His inspiring legacy ultimately endured long after his death, in part because of the country’s commitment to fulfilling his promise to land on the Moon.
In the end, investment is the key that will ensure the Artemis program’s success. Fifty years of a measured and frugal approach offered tepid goals and an agonizingly slow pace of progress. NASA’s budget has inched upwards in recent years, though the agency has yet to see a bold investment in its efforts.
Artemis I signals that the space program is beginning to find its footing in the 21st century with a clear plan and a successful launch.
The U.S. is now more serious about its journey beyond Earth than it has been in decades. Should that interest unlock new investments that allow the program to flourish, the country will benefit culturally and in terms of its own national interest.
A common perception among Gen Z Americans is that the U.S. has done little to cheer for in recent decades. However, a successful landing of the first woman and the first person of color on the Moon will redefine the nature of modern Americans’ struggle with their national identity.
The Artemis program promises to reshape America’s identity and culture in ways that cannot yet be specifically predicted. The cultural impact of landing Americans on the Moon who were never offered the opportunity during the Apollo era is not something that can be quantified. A daring and patriotic mission to the frontier of humanity’s reach may serve to rekindle our ancestors’ ideals of what their country meant to them.
For those dispirited by the culture war that dominates America’s national identity today, Artemis I is a beacon of hope in our future.
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