As I write this, the Artemis 1 Mission is still “go for launch” next Monday, Aug. 29, 2022. A lot of us are excited about the prospect of a new Moon program. But other voices, from both left and right, question whether we should go back to the Moon at all. Indeed, from the very beginning there have been questions about the priority we should give to our reach into Space.
We haven’t been to the Moon since the last Apollo mission in 1972. A full 50 years. Half a century. Dating myself, here, for the sake of scale: that was the year I graduated from high school. I’m retirement-age now, so that’s a working lifetime ago.
Why not? We’ve launched other missions – why not go back to the Moon till now? In my research, I’ve discovered several reasons.
Consider the political landscape in the United States between 1972 and 2022. Control of the House, Senate, and White House has seesawed back and forth between Republicans and Democrats rather frequently, after two long periods of Democratic Party rule during the Roosevelt-Truman years and again during 1960s and the Kennedy-Johnson administrations.
This meant that each administration and Congressional majority got to make up their own rules. They felt free to set, re-set, abandon or continue the policies of their predecessors. As a result, there were never enduring, universally-established ideas about where, how, and even if, we might boldly go anywhere. Including to the Moon.
The last Apollo missions happened during the Nixon Administration, but while Nixon wasn’t exactly against space expansion, he was much more bullish on the idea of making space more affordable and accessible. The Space Shuttle project had its origins in the Nixon White House.
Focus, Refocus, and Lack of Focus
Space programs take a long time to develop, and they require a lot of money. People in power haven’t always seen it as a high spending priority, especially in times of economic difficulty. Many early programs ran into cost overruns of the sort that saw Skylab B mothballed in the mid-70s, about the same time the Soviets canceled the Almaz (space platform) project, possibly for similar issues.
In the latter 1970s the Space Shuttle program remained in the development stages, but continued to move forward. The Ford and Carter administrations were preoccupied by inflation, an energy crisis, foreign threats, and social upheaval. Ford greenlit the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). Carter emphasized the need to self-defense in space, but didn’t take the idea very far. You’ll notice that none of these ideas got us anywhere closer to the Moon.
Ronald Reagan took that space-based defense idea and majored on it. He proposed a massive Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). But vocal observers complained it was unrealistic for the technology of the period. They nicknamed it “Star Wars” and painted it as over-priced science-fictional wish-fulfillment. At the time, they weren’t entirely wrong, although the idea of space-based defense both predated, and ultimately outlived Reagan’s idea.
George H.W. Bush was a space-development booster. On the 20th anniversary of the our first Moon landing, he announced the Space Exploration Initiative (SEI), which included a space station called Freedom – but no plan to return to the Moon anytime soon. Congress couldn’t get past the idea of its $500 billion price tag, however. Not even if the spending was spread across 20-30 years.
Bill Clinton’s administration never brought “Freedom” to fruition, but did start construction on the International Space Station. He focused more interest on exploring the universe, and kept the door open on space-based weapons. Especially in his second term, however, divisions in the United States grew more extreme. The Republican-led Congress was unwilling to work with him on initiatives of most any sort.
Advance and Retreat
George W. Bush reshaped NASA policy yet again, refocusing on space exploration (Vision for Space Exploration, 2004). He reintroduced plans to return to the Moon (by 2020), retire the Space Shuttle program, and start preparations to send humans to Mars. But Bush became much more heavily focused on waging two wars that did not produce predicted easy victories, and the onset of the Great Recession at the end of his term.
His successor Barack Obama had little time or energy for space, and certainly not for the Moon. Not in the depths of the Great Recession. His political capital went for economic fixes and the ACA. Faced in his second term with an oppositional, Republican-led Congress, few initiatives prospered. But he did use his executive power – to kill most of “W’s” space initiatives, including a trip to the Moon.
Taking the High Ground
I’ll refer you to my sister’s excellent essay on the Space Force for a look at the most recent iterations on the United States’ focus on space-based defenses. The Trump Administration further encouraged private space enterprise. They resurrected the National Space Council (continued under Biden and currently chaired by Vice President Kamala Harris). And they shifted the country’s efforts from the Obama-era focus on Mars back to the Moon.
The Biden Administration embraced and continued the internationally-supported Artemis project, which will (we hope) launch Artemis 1 on Monday. The long-delayed return to the Moon has finally begun in earnest.
Riding atop the Space Launch System (survivor of the “W” Bush-era Constellation project), the Orion spacecraft won’t carry humans this time (“Captain Moonikin Campos,” “Helga,” and “Zohar,” all varied types of sensor-equipped “manikins,” will ride in their place, along with NASA mascot Snoopy and ESA mascot Shaun the Sheep). Nor will it land on the Moon. but it will deploy CubeSats and orbit the Moon.
Artemis 1, 2, 3, and Beyond
Monday’s launch of Artemis 1 is an essential test of equipment and systems. If all goes well, in mid-October NASA will retrieve it from the Pacific Ocean. At that point, teams of scientists will start feverishly poring over its data. They must apply everything they can learn from Artemis 1, to ensure the safety of the human crew on Artemis 2.
Artemis 2 is currently planned for a May 2024 launch date. It, too, will orbit the Moon, but won’t land. The crew has a whole laundry list of systems checks to perform, both in Earth orbit and during the lunar flyby. The Artemis 2 crew hasn’t yet been named, but they’ll all be North Americans: three from the USA, and one from Canada. Whoever they turn out to be, the latter will be the first Canadian ever to travel beyond low Earth orbit.
We’ll get to Artemis 3 sometime in 2025 . . . we hope. There have been numerous delays already. This first crewed Moon landing of the Artemis Project (first humans on the lunar surface since 1972) also will see the first use of the SpaceX-built Starship HLS. If all goes well, this will be a true return to the Moon.
Artemis 1 through 3 are the beginning, not an end-point. Artemis 4 starts building another international effort: a space station called Lunar Gateway, designed to orbit the Moon. And you can guess from the name where things are headed from there. It all starts with a return to the Moon.
For once, this section doesn’t have much to add. All of the quotes are attributed in the captions. Nearly all came from the Quotefancy page “Space Quotes,” with one ringer from Famous Quotes 123. All quote images were selected by this post’s author.