It’s been 50 years since humans walked on the Moon. Now, the U.S. is launching a costly program to return there and possibly pave the way to Mars.
The U.S. space agency is preparing to launch its most powerful rocket ever — the “Mega Moon Rocket” — as part of a costly and ambitious program to eventually put humans back on the Moon a half century after they were last there and to explore the possibility of sending astronauts to Mars.
After several delays, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) aims to launch its Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and unmanned Orion spacecraft from the Kennedy Space Center in the U.S. state of Florida on September 20.
The launch is part of the Artemis program, a series of missions to build a long-term human presence at the Moon for decades to come. The first spaceflight in the mission, named Artemis I, will test the SLS rocket and the Orion spacecraft, which will orbit the Moon.
Artemis I aims to demonstrate Orion’s systems in a spaceflight environment and ensure a safe re-entry, descent, splashdown and recovery before the first flight with crew on Artemis II, tentatively set for May 2024.
Once the Artemis I rocket is propelled into space, Orion will separate and begin circling the Moon before returning back to Earth after 35 days.
With Artemis, NASA is collaborating with three other space agencies: the European Space Agency, Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency and the Canadian Space Agency.
With Artemis, NASA’s goal is to explore possibly sending humans to Mars.
If successful, the program will put humans back on the Moon for the first time since the Apollo 17 mission in 1972.
Artemis involves establishing a space station called the Lunar Gateway, similar to the International Space Station, that will orbit the Moon and provide short-term habitation for a small crew of astronauts while they shuttle up and down to the Moon to do experiments.
The long-term goal is to set up a permanent base camp on the Moon and lay the foundation to explore the possibility of putting astronauts on Mars.
“To understand the space industry, you need to look at where it started,” said Kate Howells, a policy advisor at the Planetary Society and author of the book “Space is Cool as F***.”
“It started during the Cold War, where the U.S. and the Soviet Union were in competition and the space race was a part of that. This led to the Apollo program, where the U.S. landed the first astronauts on the moon,” Howells said.
NASA acknowledges that competition with the Soviet Union sparked the start of space exploration. “The Space Age started in 1957 with the launch of the Soviet satellite Sputnik,” NASA says on its website.
NASA is collaborating with 21 nations.
The Apollo program led to massive growth of the space industry, infrastructure and jobs across the United States. While NASA’s budget has declined significantly since, Howells said it remains the best-funded space program in the world.
“It gets more funding per year than every other space agency combined,” she said.
While Artemis is an American-led mission, it is collaborating with 21 nations that have signed the Artemis Accords, a bilateral agreement for expanding space exploration. Because NASA is able to finance a program that no other country could fund individually, nations have been keen to contribute to advance their space capabilities and give their research communities an opportunity to conduct experiments on the Moon.
This international collaboration is an opportunity for countries to signal to the world that they are allies. “All of these countries are aligned in other ways, politically and with their militaries,” Howells said. “You don’t see Russia, China or Iran involved. Space is always going to be a reflection of existing geopolitical divides.”
In the last decade, China has emerged as the United States’ main space competitor, sparking a new space race. China and Russia signed an agreement in March 2021 to collaborate on an Artemis competitor, including a lunar station and Moon base. Beijing and Moscow have shared very limited information about the program, especially since Russia invaded Ukraine in February.
A large price tag
Artemis is one of many projects occupying the growing space industry of the last decade.
The private space industry in particular is seeing a boom — the value of the industry has expanded 70% since 2010. The growth stems largely from declining launch costs and advancements in satellite technology offering new services for Earth, such as SpaceX’s Starlink, which aims to offer global satellite internet coverage by 2023.
In the past few years, companies like Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic have been working to make space tourism a reality, a costly endeavor that currently only billionaires and their friends can afford.
The large price tag for Artemis, which is funded by American taxpayers, has stirred some controversy in the United States. Last year, NASA’s Inspector General estimated the agency will spend $93 billion on the Artemis program between 2012 and 2025, and each SLS/Orion launch will cost about $4.1 billion.
Still, Howells said NASA has always enjoyed public support and Americans are generally proud of NASA capabilities in space.
NASA hopes to put the first woman and the first person of colour on the Moon.
Anticipating what Artemis could achieve, Howells said the specifics of research have yet to be announced but she could speculate.
“There are still a lot of questions scientists don’t know about the Moon,” she said. “We don’t know for certain how it formed, how much water there is there and what it would take to set up a long term human presence on the moon.”
Artemis missions will carry satellites that will orbit the Moon. One such satellite, NEA Scout, will look for asteroids that could hit Earth in the future. A lunar rover, VIPER, will explore the Moon’s surface, collecting data on the soil and mapping water ice, particularly in shadowed areas of the Moon not visible from satellite images.
Like the International Space Station, Artemis will take advantage of putting equipment and eventually humans outside the Earth’s gravity to conduct research for different areas of science.
“There will likely be a lot of experiments on the Moon with physics, fluid dynamics, plant growth and medical experiments,” Howells said. NASA hopes to score a number of historical firsts with the program, including putting the first woman and the first person of colour on the Moon.
If Artemis I is successful, the program will move forward with plans for a crewed Artemis II launch in 2024, a crewed Artemis III mission landing on the Moon in 2025 and Artemis IV docking with the Lunar Gateway station in 2027.
(For other News Decoder stories on space, click here.)
Three questions to consider:
- Why did the Cold War spur the space industry?
- How has space exploration helped scientific research and technological advances?
- Artemis is expected to cost at least $93 billion by 2025. Do you think it is worth the money spent?
Natasha Comeau is a former fellow in global journalism at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto. She holds a Master of Global Affairs from the Munk School at the University of Toronto. She currently works at Grand Challenges Canada, a nonprofit based in Toronto, where she supports global health innovations in low and middle-income countries.