Fifty years ago last weekend, Neil Armstrong took humanity’s historic first steps on the Moon. That moment was the culmination of a near-decade of Americans working overtime, risking and in some cases even giving their lives, in service of a unifying national cause. They were called to action by a visionary American president.
When Mr. Armstrong took his giant leap for mankind, he and his compatriots would not have guessed that only 11 other men would since have followed. Four of these men still live today, all now in their 80s. For all our science fiction fantasies of other-worldly travel, now rendered with stunning special effects, we are not far from a day when no one alive will have walked on another world. The original “Star Trek” pilot episode provides a potent cautionary tale: could a people become so enamored with their virtual reality renderings that they forsake real exploration of the world(s) beyond?
Certainly our technology today provides a wealth of distractions. Our options for entertainment grow daily along with our options for information and communication. News can be personalized, social networks can be pruned to include only those of like mind and like interests. We humans have always been tribal; yet certain events transcend such bounds entirely.
Seemingly everyone who was alive on July 20, 1969 can tell you a story about it: where they were when they heard the news, or how they watched, and what they felt. There are events like this in every generation. Everyone remembers where they were when they heard about the attack on Pearl Harbor, or Kennedy’s assassination, or — for my generation — the falling of the twin towers on 9/11. Too often, these events are bad things—terrible things—events that make us shudder at humankind’s capacity for evil. But the landing of Apollo 11 on the surface of the Moon was an event when the whole world stopped for a moment and wondered at humankind’s capacity for good. An event that made everyone dream of an incredible future for our world. Through the power of human ingenuity, we could shape the future into something fantastic, a place we wanted our children to see.
Since the triumph of Apollo, we have not stopped exploring. America has sent probes to explore every planet from Mercury to Pluto, and even out into interstellar space. We have roamed the surface of Mars and plunged into the depths of Saturn. Our space program has provided generations of children with images that they will never forget.
Still, during all of these fifty years, we have never had another program like Apollo. A program that harnessed the full promise of our nation’s space program, the finest space program that the world has ever known. A quest worthy of the finest of American ingenuity. Never another, until now.
The Artemis program is NASA’s bold plan to return to the Moon, this time with women and men, representing all the best that America has to offer. And, this time, we would leverage that lunar architecture within our generation to send humans on to Mars, the most Earth-like world yet known to us. This program has the blessing of President Trump and Vice President Pence, and they have declared an ambitious timeline: we will see the first woman on the Moon by 2024.
In Greek mythology, Artemis is the twin sister of Apollo, and goddess of the Moon. This namesake reminds us of Apollo, which proved that such efforts and timelines are possible to us, while also highlighting that this journey will be a new and different adventure. The mythical Artemis loved Orion, her hunting companion. NASA’s Artemis can utilize the Orion crew capsule, under development since the Bush administration; a deep space “gateway” conceived during Obama’s presidency; and numerous contributions from an increasingly vibrant private space industry. The time is right to bring the pieces together, and a visionary administration has given us the mandate.
Artemis is a program that extends beyond political boundaries; beyond the boundaries of nations; beyond the surly bonds of Earth. Putting a woman on the Moon for the first time will be remembered not just for a generation, but for a thousand years. The landing of people on Mars is something that will be remembered always, as the most difficult problem that humankind has ever come together to solve. The oft-used comedic refrain is, “We can land a man on the Moon, but we can’t do ___.” The truth that we know in our hearts is: we landed a man on the Moon, so there isn’t anything we can’t do.
America: you have the finest space program in the world. Use it. Return to the Moon not because it is easy, but because it is hard. The investment is small but the return will be remembered forever.
* James Wray, Ph.D., is a planetary scientist and Associate Professor of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, GA.
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