We’re going back to the moon, or at least close to it, perhaps as soon as the fall of 2024.
We humans haven’t been near the place since 1972, when those of us who were around at the time were all wrapped up in Watergate and the Vietnam War. In the years since, we have had numerous launches of the space shuttle, and we continue to send astronauts to the orbiting International Space Station.
But last week, NASA announced the names of the crew members who will fly the Artemis II mission in November 2024, a 10-day flight that, at this point, is planned to send the three men and one woman farther than any human has ever traveled. After circling the moon — but not touching down on it — the spacecraft will return to Earth.
All this will pave the way for Artemis III, expected to launch in December 2025. The astronauts of Artemis III are slated to walk on the lunar surface, the first time anyone will have done so in 53 years. Artemis III, NASA hopes, will kick off an effort to establish a permanent lunar outpost that will allow astronauts to live and work on the moon.
And that lunar outpost is supposed to help lay the groundwork for an eventual trip to Mars.
Should we be excited? You bet, Andrew Parton, president of the Cradle of Aviation Museum in Garden City, says. Museum officials are already thinking about some type of launch party to mark the Artemis II flight late next year. The museum, Parton said, might invite some astronauts, or other dignitaries, to the event. But a celebration of some kind is in the works.
America’s space program has always operated in fits and starts. It does some extraordinary things, including landing people on the moon for the first time in 1969, and then repeating that feat several times, until the program ground to a halt in 1972, as public interest waned and congressional funding dried up.
Nothing space-worthy happened after that until 1981, when the first space shuttle was launched. But the shuttle program ended in 2011, with the last flight of the shuttle Atlantis, after two disasters. In 1986, the shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after takeoff from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, killing all seven astronauts aboard, and in 2003, the shuttle Columbia disintegrated as it re-entered the atmosphere over Texas and Louisiana, killing seven more.
The first components of the International Space Station were launched in 1998, and sparked a great deal of interest. The ISS makes its way into the news every once in a while, when it is visible from Earth — or when students, as is the case now in Long Beach, are working on a science project that is to go aboard the station. But otherwise, it has become a ho-hum low-Earth-orbit presence.
Elon Musk and his SpaceX program generate interest, especially when he takes civilians into space, as he did for the first time in May 2020. But Musk has been getting mostly bad press lately for the controversy that has surrounded his purchase of Twitter.
But here is a fresh start: NASA’s Artemis II, whose crew includes a woman and a Canadian, signals that our space journey is on its way again. “It should get a whole new generation interested in space,” Parton said.
“It’s so much more than the four names that have been announced,” Victor Glover, one of the crew members, said at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. “We need to celebrate this moment in history.” Glover’s crew mates are Christina Koch — a veteran of six space walks — Jeremy Hansen and Reid Wiseman.
Space is infinitely fascinating to so many, but alas, is the same old same old to many others. That, pretty much, is human nature. How much wonder is there anymore over how fast you can fly from New York to Tokyo?
We can hope that the eventual trip to Mars, and someday even beyond, will prove to be something else again, and ignite some passion for what is ultimately the destiny of humankind.
At least for a brief time.
James Bernstein is the editor of the Long Beach Herald. Comments? firstname.lastname@example.org.