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NASA’s return to the moon is off to a rocky start

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Five decades later, NASA has a plan to send astronauts back to the lunar surface. Named Artemis after Apollo’s sister in Greek mythology, the project aims to visit a new part of the moon and retrieve new monsters, this time with new faces behind the sun visors, including the first woman and first person of color.

Whether this plan will succeed — and whether a new moon landing will inspire a new “Artemis generation” in space exploration, as NASA’s leadership hopes — is a matter of debate. The differences between Artemis and the Apollo program, which itself got out of hand sooner than many had hoped, are certainly stark. Artemis is built on a less exact, less agile, and much less accomplished vision of space exploration than the one that launched Cernan and its predecessors. While Apollo was conceived and executed as an expensive monument to American ingenuity and the power of capitalism, its sister program is more a reflection of American politics and the power of inertia.

While the program is officially only three years old, elements of Artemis have been many years, even decades, in the making. The support projects, spread across NASA and with university partners in the US, have in many cases existed long before the Trump administration named the program. Its origins were rocky even before problems arose and two hurricanes delayed the first launch in November.

Artemis has many different purposes and serves very different groups. For some space enthusiasts, it’s just a way back to the moon, a destination that will always be greatest in our collective consciousness. For others, it represents a path to Mars. Some see Artemis as a way to regain American space superiority, something that was most visibly lost when the space shuttle retired in 2011. Still others see it as a means to open a new era of scientific discoveries and inventions, first undertaken during Apollo but probably started when people first looked at the moon and wondered what it was.

The project’s first mission, an uncrewed test flight called Artemis 1, thundered into space in the middle of the night on Nov. 16. It was carried into space by the most powerful rocket ever launched, the Space Launch System (SLS). Standing 15 feet taller than the Statue of Liberty, the SLS consists of an orange main tank flanked by white boosters that make it resemble the space shuttle, its predecessor in both propulsion and programmatic style. After multiple missed deadlines and criticism from Congress, multiple White House residents and NASA’s own auditors, space exploration fans, and scientists were excited to go back to the moon.

But Artemis is overshadowed by the inconvenient fact that the rocket, not the lunar missions it will perform, has long been the primary target of NASA’s human spaceflight program. Exactly where that missile goes has always been secondary – and its destination has changed several times. If something goes wrong, or if SLS is deemed too expensive or unsustainable, there is a chance that the entire lunar program will fail or at least be judged the same. This is a wobbly, uncertain start to an effort to return humans to the lunar surface for the first time in half a century — and if it does happen, that return could be very short-lived.

On February 1, 2003, the sky over Texas flashed what appeared to be a daytime meteor shower. The bright objects were pieces of the space shuttle Colombia, which had broken apart on its 28th reentry through Earth’s atmosphere. As the nation mourned the seven crew members of the shuttle, President George W. Bush began working on a new way forward for NASA.

Artemis has its roots in that effort. In January 2004, less than a year after the Colombia disaster, Bush announced a Vision for Space Exploration – a reinvention of the space program calling for the shuttle to be decommissioned by 2011, the International Space Station sunk by 2016, and replaced with a new program called Constellation. Constellation would consist of a new, configurable rocket that could be launched to the Moon or even Mars, called Ares; a new low Earth orbit crew vehicle called Orion; and a new lunar lander called Altair.

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