“We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win.”
It has been so long since President Kennedy’s dream of landing a man - several men, as it turned out - on the moon was realized that it is easy to forget what it was all about.
And because it has been 50 years since the last small step of a man off the lunar surface occurred, one might think that the original Apollo Program had no point. If there was a purpose in going to the moon then why, in all that time, haven’t we been back?
We’re going back.
Artemis I, the first in a series of flights designed to not only return human beings to our nearest celestial neighbor, but also to establish a permanent presence there, has completed a successful maiden voyage.
It was launched on November 16 atop the Space Launch System, our nation’s largest ever rocket. Key parts of that system were built by Northrop Grumman and test fired July 21 at that company’s facility in Promentory, Utah.
The Orion capsule returned safely to earth Sunday morning, splashing down in the Pacific Ocean near Baja California ending a 25-day journey to, around and from the moon.
The mission profile set the uncrewed Orion spacecraft on a course to circle the moon, even going some 40,000 beyond the moon, further than any craft built for humans has ever gone.
This, as is the habit of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, was a test flight. No humans were on board this time. But if all goes well, it will be followed by Artemis II, to carry a crew around the moon, and Artemis III, which is scheduled to land humans again on the moon in 2025.
This time, the plan is not a touch-and-go, plant the flag, pick up some rocks and hurry home, as the historic Apollo missions were before America lost interest and Congress lost the will to fund human space exploration beyond low earth orbit. This time, we’re staying.
Plans include a permanent moon base, supported by a lunar-orbiting station, to carry out scientific experiments and serve as a jumping-off point for missions to Mars and beyond.
The Artemis Program was created during the administration of Barack Obama, adopted and boosted by the administration of Donald Trump and has the full support of Joe Biden. All have seen the scientific, educational, social and inspirational benefits of a properly tasked and funded moon program.
It’s expensive. From its inception through 2025, Artemis will cost an estimated $93 billion.
Unlike the joyriding billionaires who have used mostly their own money to touch the inner borders of space, even as they demonstrate pluck and courage, Artemis is a program with a long-term, serious purpose.
It is taxpayer-funded and government-led by an agency that has more than 60 years of experience of managing some of the most ambitious and technically challenging projects in human history. That experience should not be forgotten but turned, again, to demonstrate how inspired and properly led humans can come together to take on a task and inspire the next generation of creators, innovators and explorers.
And, like previous NASA programs, and agencies from the Pentagon to the Postal Service, Artemis builds on the skills of American, and European, private industry. Northrup Grumman, successor to Utah’s ATK Orbital, built the solid rocket boosters that provide most of the thrust necessary to leave earth. Aerojet Rocketdyne, Boeing and Teledyne Brown also contributed to the launch system.
Lockheed Martin, which also has a presence in Utah, is the prime contractor for the Orion crew module. There are dozens more contractors and subcontractors on the project from Utah alone. Orion’s service module, the power plant for the mission, was contributed by the European Space Agency, with prime contractor Airbus.
Taking on and accomplishing such missions used to be the kind of thing Americans excelled at. Setting such goals melds the best of science and technology, government and the private sector, daring-do and excruciating planning, wild dreams and precise mathematics. The only thing that can match space exploration for inspiring such efforts is war. And we’ve had more than enough of those.
The Artemis Program is something all the world can take pride in.