NASA’s return to the moon is off to a rocky start

Five decades later, NASA has a plan to send astronauts back to the lunar surface. Called Artemis, after the sister of Apollo in Greek mythology, the project aims to visit a new area of the moon and retrieve new samples, this time with new faces behind the sun visors—including the first woman and first person of color. 

Whether this plan will succeed—and whether a fresh moon landing will inspire a new “Artemis generation” in space exploration, as NASA leadership hopes—is a matter of debate. The differences between Artemis and the Apollo program, which itself fizzled out sooner than many had hoped, are certainly stark. Artemis is built on a less exact, less nimble, and much less well-heeled vision of space exploration than the one that launched Cernan and his predecessors. Where Apollo was conceived and executed as a high-priced monument to American ingenuity and the power of capitalism, its sister program is more a reflection of American politics and the power of inertia.   

Though the program is officially only three years old, elements of Artemis have been in the works for many years, even decades. Its ancillary projects, spread throughout NASA and at university partners across the US, in many cases existed long before the Trump administration gave the program a name. Its origins were rocky even before fueling problems and two hurricanes delayed its first launch in November. 

Artemis has many disparate purposes, serving very different groups. For some space enthusiasts, it’s simply a way back to the moon, a destination that will always loom largest in our collective consciousness. For others, it represents a path to Mars. Some see Artemis as a way to reclaim American superiority in space, something that was most visibly lost when the space shuttle retired in 2011. Still others see it as a means to unlock a new era of scientific discovery and invention, first undertaken during Apollo but arguably begun the first time humans looked at the moon and wondered what it was. 

The project’s first mission, an uncrewed test flight called Artemis 1, thundered to space in the middle of the night on November 16. It was carried into space by the most powerful rocket ever launched, the Space Launch System (SLS). Towering 15 feet taller than the Statue of Liberty, the SLS consists of an orange main tank flanked by white boosters that make it resemble the space shuttle, its progenitor in both propulsion and programmatic style. After multiple missed deadlines and criticism from Congress, multiple White House occupants, and NASA’s own auditors, space exploration fans and scientists  were amped to go back to the moon. 

But overshadowing Artemis is the uncomfortable fact that the rocket, not the moon missions it will carry, has long been the primary goal of NASA’s human spaceflight program. Where exactly that rocket is going has always been secondary—and the destination has changed multiple times. If something goes wrong, or if SLS is deemed too expensive or unsustainable, there’s a chance the entire moon program will fail or at least be similarly judged. This is a wobbly, uncertain start to an effort to return humans to the lunar surface for the first time in a half-century—and could make that return, if it does happen, a very brief one. 

On February 1, 2003, the skies over Texas flashed with what appeared to be a daytime meteor shower. The bright objects were pieces of the space shuttle Columbia, which had broken apart during its 28th reentry through Earth’s atmosphere. As the nation mourned the shuttle’s seven crew members, President George W. Bush began work on a new way forward for NASA. 

Artemis has its roots in that effort. In January 2004, less than a year after the Columbia disaster, Bush announced a Vision for Space Exploration—a reimagining of the space program that called for retiring the shuttle by 2011, scuttling the International Space Station by 2016, and replacing them with a new program called Constellation. Constellation would consist of a new, configurable rocket capable of launching to the moon or even to Mars, named Ares; a new crew vehicle for low Earth orbit, called Orion; and a new lunar lander, named Altair.

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