In the middle of the night, while many Americans were sleeping, NASA launched the country into the next era of space exploration.
A giant new rocket, the most powerful that the agency has ever built, soared into space just before 2 a.m. today, carrying a gumdrop-shaped capsule on a journey to the moon and back. It’s the first mission in the Artemis program, NASA’s ambitious effort to land American astronauts on the moon for the first time in 50 years.
No astronauts were inside the Orion capsule this morning. But the successful flight of the rocket, the very straightforwardly named Space Launch System, has brought NASA one step closer to delivering the next batch of human beings to the lunar surface. A few months after their scheduled takeoff, America’s 21st-century moon dreams are finally under way. (They might have been overshadowed by another overnight launch from Florida—Donald Trump’s third campaign for the presidency—but they’re happening.)
As big an accomplishment as a moon mission is, many Americans probably didn’t stay up all night waiting for the rocket to launch. That’s the way public opinion usually goes on space travel. As beloved as the Apollo endeavor seems today, it was unpopular throughout the 1960s; support spiked only in the aftermath of the first landing, in 1969. By the early ’70s, after a few more landings, Americans weren’t tuning in like they used to. Artemis, named for Apollo’s sister in Greek mythology, is likely to repeat that history. Already, some space enthusiasts are thrilled, while others don’t see the point (especially considering that we’ve already been to the moon before). Still others fall somewhere in the middle, in the valley of meh. But as the program racks up attention-grabbing milestones, more people might start to wonder: What’s this Artemis thing all about?
The first few missions will resemble Apollo’s; a crew of astronauts will make a trip around the moon before another crew descends to the surface. Beyond that, NASA has some key differences in mind. The first Artemis crew to put its bootprints in the regolith, for example, will not consist solely of white men, as the Apollo missions did, but will include the first woman and first person of color to walk on the moon. And rather than letting the program peter out after a series of landings, NASA wants to stick around. The agency aims to assemble a space station orbiting the moon, the same way the International Space Station circles Earth, and establish small outposts on the lunar surface where visiting astronauts can live for weeks at a time. These operations, NASA officials hope, will eventually inform planning for future human missions to Mars.
It is a glossy vision of the future. But the path between the first Artemis launch and the first Artemis landing, currently slated for 2025, is studded with uncertainty. Sure, humanity made it to the moon before, but the circumstances that accelerated the Apollo program—a high-stakes race with another space superpower, and generous budgets to meet that challenge—no longer exist. NASA has a long to-do list ahead of it. The pressurized spacesuits that astronauts will need to wear on the surface are still in the works, and the garments may not be ready by 2025. NASA has hired SpaceX to develop the technology that will transport astronauts from their capsule down to the lunar surface, and the work is under way, but a report by the agency's inspector general has described the project's timelines as “unrealistic.” And the crewless capsule that is currently on its way to the moon? NASA would prefer that it survive the scorching reentry through Earth's atmosphere next month and splash down at sea in one piece. But that’s not certain.
The biggest question is whether NASA can fulfill its promise of staying on the moon. Many in the spaceflight community, including retired astronauts and former NASA officials, are skeptical that Artemis will lead to a sustained lunar presence. The program’s budget is smaller than Apollo’s was, and the Space Launch System will fly less frequently than the Saturn V, the Apollo-era rocket. Some wonder whether the Space Launch System is even the right ride for the job; unlike some commercially built rockets, this one is not reusable, meaning that after every successful launch, the rocket core and side boosters fall away and plunge into the ocean. And then there’s the matter of political will; moon mandates are just as vulnerable as any other federal program when the tides shift in the White House and on Capitol Hill. (The program would likely remain untouched if Trump were to be elected again; the name Artemis emerged during his administration.) Artemis may sound almost magical, but it could easily fizzle out for the most mundane reasons.
Despite all the questions, despite the political environment, despite the many other crises and news events clamoring for America’s attention, NASA is determined to keep the Artemis program moving. So back to the moon we go. The Orion capsule will still be in space next month during the 50th anniversary of the launch of Apollo 17, the final visit to the moon. Perhaps 50 years from now, we’ll have a little moon village, and even one on Mars. Artemis may seem as venerated as Apollo does now. Or maybe we’ll be mounting yet another return effort to Earth’s celestial companion because the last one didn’t work out, not in the way we imagined. At least NASA will have plenty of names to choose from; aside from Apollo, Artemis had dozens of siblings.