Nov 17, 2022 - Science

Welcome to the new Moon age

Illustration of an astronaut holding a balloon made of the moon.

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

NASA's successful launch this week of its Moon rocket ushers in a new age of lunar exploration.

Why it matters: NASA's Artemis program may help spark the inspiration that a major human spaceflight endeavor — like the Apollo program — can bring to new generations.

  • NASA's plans for Mars also hinge on the Artemis program, which will use the Moon as a proving ground for sending crewed missions to the Red Planet.
  • "There's an underestimation about the importance of Artemis," the Planetary Society's Casey Dreier tells Axios. "This is the first time in 50 years that we've had hardware designed to do this."

Catch up quick: The Space Launch System took flight from Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Wednesday, lofting an uncrewed Orion capsule on a journey around the Moon.

  • After multiple delays over the past few months, including weathering a hurricane on the launch pad, fuel leaks and other issues, the rocket performed flawlessly.
  • "We rise together, back to the Moon and beyond," NASA launch commentator and spokesperson Derrol Nail said just after liftoff.
  • The SLS is the most powerful rocket ever built, capable of sending people and payloads to deep space destinations.
  • Orion is now on a trip through space and should splash down back on Earth in December after testing its systems in space.

The big picture: Apollo was a race between two nations, but NASA says Artemis is built on the premise that countries around the world should cooperate to create a sustainable presence on the Moon.

  • To NASA, it's not about leaving flags and footprints now. It's about establishing a long-lived presence on the lunar surface that can be used to test the tech needed for more ambitious missions.

The intrigue: While Artemis isn't about racing one nation to the lunar surface, there is still geopolitical intrigue highlighted by Artemis I's launch.

  • As the International Space Station comes to a close near the end of the decade, attention will turn to the Moon.
  • China and Russia have their own plans to build a research station on the lunar surface, while NASA, the European Space Agency and others are focused on Artemis.
  • More than 20 nations have now signed on to the Artemis Accords, a U.S.-led effort on how to govern exploration of the Moon.

Between the lines: The SLS program has been plagued by extreme cost overruns and delays, but experts argue that without the rocket, the Artemis program — and NASA's return to the Moon in general — wouldn't exist.

  • The program has garnered bipartisan congressional support since 2010, when Congress first ordered NASA to build it.
  • Even when the Obama administration canceled the Constellation program back to the Moon in favor of a crewed mission to an asteroid, the SLS stuck around.
  • "Whether they were admitting it or not during the Obama years, they were building a Moon rocket," Dreier said.

Yes, but: Artemis I is only one step in what will be a long journey to land people on the Moon again.

  • After this launch, NASA is planning for its first crewed launch of the Orion and SLS in 2024. That mission will see a crew fly by the Moon and come back home without landing.
  • Artemis III, expected in 2025, will mark the first crewed landing on the Moon using SpaceX's Starship system as a lunar lander. But SpaceX has yet to successfully launch an orbital flight of Starship.
  • The space agency is also planning to assemble a small space station called Gateway in orbit around the Moon that will act as a jumping-off point for future lunar landings.
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