The Morning: To the moon

Why NASA wants to go back now.

September 1, 2022

Good morning. NASA's moon missions could eventually lead to humans on Mars.

The rocket for the Artemis I mission, on launchpad at Kennedy Space Center.Bill Ingalls/NASA

And beyond

Human beings will soon walk on the moon again, if NASA gets its way.

NASA plans to launch an uncrewed spacecraft, part of the Artemis I mission, as soon as this weekend to orbit the moon and then return to Earth after about a month and a half. If everything goes as planned, a future mission could land astronauts on the moon in 2025.

Today's newsletter will explain why NASA is doing this now and what it means for the future of space travel.

Why the moon?

Several factors are driving NASA to get astronauts back to the moon for the first time in more than 50 years. One is a long-running desire to get human beings on Mars. The Artemis missions will test some of the technology and logistics required to do that.

"If you believe that the future of humanity is spreading across the solar system, the first stop has to be the moon," my colleague Ken Chang, who covers NASA, told me. "If you can't figure that out, you're certainly not getting to Mars."

But a mission to the moon also has some scientific value on its own. Rocks collected in previous missions, for example, revealed the moon's origin: It likely formed from debris after an object the size of Mars hit Earth more than four billion years ago.

In the Artemis missions, NASA is especially interested in studying ice in lunar craters. Depending on how long it's been there, the ice and its characteristics could provide a history of the solar system. The ice could also be used to establish permanent bases on the moon, if it can be turned into drinking water, oxygen or spacecraft fuel (as Ken explained in The Times).

And the missions could produce collateral benefits. Past innovations in the space program have led to technological advancements in everyday life, including in computing and food preservation.

What's next?

This weekend's launch was originally scheduled for this past Monday, but NASA postponed it after finding a technical problem shortly before takeoff. It could be delayed again, possibly for months, if the weather is bad or if another problem arises.

But once the first Artemis mission does launch, NASA aims to follow it with more trips to the moon. Artemis II, currently set for 2024, would be crewed and fly around the moon. Artemis III, planned for 2025, would land a woman and a person of color on the moon for the first time. (The Times broke down the Artemis missions, with graphics, here.)

If all of that goes well, NASA hopes to build permanent outposts on the moon and in its orbit for future lunar exploration and beyond.

Why now?

The first Artemis mission would add to what's been a busy 2022 for NASA. Earlier this year, the agency also deployed the James Webb telescope, which is already producing detailed and colorful photos of our solar system and deep space.

Some of that is coincidental timing. After the space shuttle Columbia disaster in 2003, the agency began to work on new modes of travel. The next year, it started construction on the James Webb telescope. Nearly two decades later, both projects happened to be ready around the same time.

But NASA has been galvanized by competition from other countries. China, for instance, has landed three robotic missions on the moon. "We have to be concerned that they would say: 'This is our exclusive zone. You stay out,'" Bill Nelson, the NASA administrator, told The Times. "So, yes, that's one of the things that we look at."

The agency has also been pushed by private companies, like Elon Musk's SpaceX and Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin, that aim to turn space travel into a commercial enterprise. The private actors have gotten a lot of support and funding from NASA, but they have also driven higher interest in space travel, from the public and private sectors, that wasn't there before. After years of cuts, NASA's budget has grown for most of the past decade.

What do critics say?

Some critics are unhappy with the Artemis missions' price tag. By the time people walk on the moon again, NASA will have likely spent around $100 billion. (NASA's budget makes up about 0.5 percent of federal spending.) The cost led the Obama administration to cancel an earlier version of the project.

That spending, however, is one of the reasons Artemis has survived: Members of Congress who oversee NASA's budget, particularly in Texas, Alabama and Florida, have made sure the agency's projects end up in their states. That's pushed lawmakers to keep the program going.

The Economist argued that NASA should aim to be more efficient, similar to private space exploration businesses. It compared the cost of the Artemis rockets to SpaceX's, which are cheaper, and, unlike NASA's rockets, reusable.

NASA does plan to partner with SpaceX for a critical component of the Artemis III mission: The company's Starship will bring astronauts to the moon's surface. But, for now, NASA is mostly working with the technology it has developed and knows can work.

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