Last week NASA’s Artemis program got underway with the launch of Artemis I propelling Orion into the atmosphere. So far there has been very little drama and certainly not the wow factor of the 1969 Apollo moon landing. In fact, Artemis I is not landing there. It’s the first time since the astronaut Gene Cernan climbed back into his lunar module as the last person on the moon on Dec. 14, 1972, and after years of disinterest, now there is a sustained commitment to going back.
Peter Baker, writing for The New York Times, spoke with his colleague Kenneth Chang, who covers the space program. Chang asked a rhetorical question: “Why the moon now?”. The answer is complex. “There’s a lot we still don’t know about the moon. Everyone sort of lost interest in the moon for 20 years after Apollo. The moon was like, ‘Oh, we’ve been there, done that, it’s just a rock, no atmosphere, it’s not that interesting.’ Scientifically, what changed is in the ’90s, people started thinking there might be water-ice on the moon. This was a major change in thinking.”
Baker explains that if there is water on the moon, you can split off hydrogen from oxygen and make rocket fuel. Such a prospect would be transformative because the moon could be used as a base for deep-space missions without the cost and burden of lifting heavy rocket fuel off the Earth, which has six times the gravity of the moon. “Scientifically, that’s a cool possibility,” Chang said, “and so people started getting interested in the moon again.”
Artemis I launched Wednesday and reached the moon this morning. This mission is meant to test this new generation of equipment. The spacecraft is scheduled to return to Earth on Dec. 11.
NASA officials want Orion to be out in deep space for a set time to make sure that nothing unexpected happens from radiation upon re-entry, and the last thing they want to test is the heat shield. They’re coming in at a really high velocity and they want to make sure the shield survives the re-entry.
The next mission, Artemis II, is set for 2024, will have a four-person crew, and will still not land.