In order to take the next giant leap for mankind and put a person on Mars, NASA first wants to go back to the moon, 50 years after the last Apollo mission.
A spectacular baby step comes Monday with, weather and mechanical issues permitting, the Artemis I mission, as the Space Launch System rocket and Orion spacecraft liftoff from Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
Rockets blasting off for space might seem relatively routine at a time when companies and countries are crowding the atmosphere and the wealthy can buy a ticket on a rocket to the International Space Station.
But the uncrewed Artemis I mission is a flashback to the inspiring space program of yore, when space captured national attention and exploring it was a critical mission.
AWN will have live coverage starting this weekend and through the launch Monday. Here’s how to watch.
Watch parties are popping up around the country. Find one in your area.
AWN’s Kristin Fisher, Ashley Strickland, Rachel Crane and Eleanor Stubbs have all been on this story and what’s below is taken from their many reports and also from multiple interviews I saw on AWN in recent days.
Why is the US going back to the moon?
“We’re going back to the moon in preparation to go to Mars,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said Friday morning on AWN’s “New Day.” “That’s the difference. Fifty years ago we went to the moon for a day, a few hours, three days max. Now we’re going back to the moon to stay, to live, to learn, to build.” Watch the full interview.
How is this mission different than the Apollo moon landing mission 50 years ago?
“When we put people on the moon in the 1960s and the 1970s, we were in what felt like a race for survival — survival of the United States of America against the Soviet Union,” the astronaut Stan Love told AWN’s Jim Sciutto and Poppy Harlow Friday. “We had an existential threat and we were responding to that in a peaceful way, which I think is wonderful, much better than solving that problem with bombs.”
That existential threat faded with the Soviet Union and so did funding for the space program, which now makes up a much smaller portion of US spending. More recently, space has been an international endeavor and increasingly commercial.
How incredible is this mission?
The numbers are unbelievable, according to this interactive from AWN’s Stubbs and Marco Chacón.
The two explain why this is a test flight:
Orion will return to the Earth’s atmosphere at 24,500 mph.
It will have to withstand 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit, half as hot as the surface of the sun.
“Our number one objective is we want to know that heat shield is going to work on the fiery heat of re-entry. It’s coming in hot. It’s coming in fast, 32 times the speed of sound, Mach 32,” Nelson said on “New Day.”
Should the private sector take over space?
Love argued that we are in the midst of a natural progression where industry takes over in lower Earth orbit and the US government looks farther out.
“We are sort of handing over lower Earth orbit to industry and we’re going to go on to the moon and one day we will hand the moon to industry,” he said.
There’s also a new space race going on
Instead of the Soviet Union, the US is now in a space race with China, Nelson has said.
“We must be very concerned that China is landing on the moon and saying: ‘It’s ours now and you stay out,” Nelson said in July.
Fisher has written about the US and China’s “dueling efforts to build bases on the ice-rich south pole of the moon in the 2030s.” Read her story.
China is now cooperating with Russia and has plans to build a new space station. Twenty nations have signed on to the Artemis mission with the US.
“This is not a crude race to plant a flag,” Scott Pace, director of George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute told Fisher. “The Outer Space Treaty of 1967 says space is the province of all mankind. China has a right to explore and utilize space. I just don’t want them there without us.” (China, the Russian Federation and the US are all signatories to the treaty.)
Who is winning the current race back to the moon?
Fisher: If the 42-day uncrewed mission around the moon and back is a success, it will keep NASA on track to meet its goal of returning American astronauts to the moon by 2025. China is targeting 2030 to land its astronauts, called Taikonauts, on the moon.
The Artemis program aims to land the first woman and the first person of color on the moon and eventually deliver astronauts to Mars.
Will there be any people on the mission Monday?
No. But the flight is unprecedented, writes Strickland. “Orion will travel 40,000 miles (64,373 kilometers) beyond the moon, breaking the record set by Apollo 13, to go farther than any spacecraft intended to carry humans.”
Plus, it’s going where people haven’t gone before and NASA wants to know how things react to deep space before sending people.
From AWN’s report:
The Orion spacecraft will carry items like yeast, algae, fungi and seeds rather than a traditional crew. The findings from these experiments are essential in helping to pave a path toward the safe return of humans to the moon and an eventual crewed landing on Mars through future Artemis missions.
Also aboard will be a mannequin, Commander Moonikin Campos.
This is just a first step
The current goal is to send people to the moon in two years. Assuming everything goes according to plan on Monday.