From Apollo to Artemis: 50 years later, is it time to return to the Moon? | Space

A color photograph of the Earth, with deep blue oceans, brown continents and swirling white clouds, on an inky black background
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IIn a few weeks, NASA will celebrate a remarkable anniversary. Fifty years ago, the last astronauts to visit the Moon returned to Earth, leaving behind the last telltale signs that our species had once visited another world. For three days in December 1972, Apollo 17 crew members Gene Cernan and Harrison “Jack” Schmitt explored the Taurus-Littrow lunar valley, traveling more than 30 kilometers in their lunar rover while collecting more than 100 kg of rocks for the return to Earth.

Then, on December 14, geologist Schmitt returned to the mission’s lunar lander while Cernan gave a brief speech that was broadcast to Earth. “We will return, with peace and hope for all mankind,” he promised. Then Cernan closed the spacecraft’s hatch and after adjusting the controls, placed his hand on the ship’s yellow ignition button and spoke the last words a human would speak on the moon for the rest of the 20th century: “D Okay, Jack, let’s go mutha out of here.

Their lander, Challenger, flew into lunar orbit and docked with the mission command ship, America. As Apollo 17 began its return journey, the astronauts held a televised press conference. It was not a worldwide success. “Apparently, we were already making the news yesterday because the networks did not find the time to put us on the air,” recalls Cernan. Thus, humanity turned its back on the last moonwalkers before they even returned to their home planet.

Earth photographed by the Apollo 17 crew. Photography: Andy Saunders/Nasa

The world had been pierced by Apollo 11 three years earlier. But after a series of new manned lunar missions, boredom set in. Apollo 18, 19 and 20 were canceled and Apollo 17 was decreed as the last mission – although it seems that this detail escaped the attention of the American public by the time the launch date arrived. . When CBS cut its drama series Medical Center to show the launch of Apollo 17 on December 7, 1972, the network was bombarded with complaints while NBC – instead of showing Cernan’s final steps on the moon seven days later – opted to air a repeat of the Johnny Carson show.

It was a humbling end to the Apollo program. For his part, Cernan – who died in 2017 – was bitter at the public rejection and fierce in expressing his disappointment at becoming the last person to walk on the moon. “It’s a very dubious honour,” he told the Observer in 2002. “It tells us everything we haven’t done, rather than everything we have done.”

So it’s ironic that the anniversary of the Apollo 17 moon landing coincides with a mission that aims to herald the return of humans to the moon – albeit half a century later. Launched last week, Artemis 1 blew up an uncrewed Orion capsule on a 25-day mission beyond the moon’s orbit. His return to Earth is scheduled for December 11, the exact date, 50 years earlier, of the landing of Apollo 17 astronauts on Taurus-Littrow. If all goes well and Orion’s systems work as expected, a follow-up mission, Artemis 2, will put a crewed Orion capsule on course for a lunar flyby in 2024, with Artemis 3 performing a crewed lunar landing l ‘next year. According to this timeline, humans will return to the Moon after a gap of 53 years – although given the already troubled history of delays to the Artemis program, the gap could be even longer.

A Spectacular Rocket Launch, With The Rocket Leaving The Gantry Against The Night Sky,
The Artemis 1 mission lifted off last week. Photograph: Joe Skipper/Reuters

After these flights, other missions will be launched with the goal of establishing Lunar Gateway, a crewed space station that will orbit the Moon, as well as a permanent science outpost on the surface. Work will also begin on sending humans to Mars from the Moon. Additionally, NASA – working with space agencies in Europe, Japan and Canada – will launch a series of robotic flights launched by a patchwork of nations and private companies. Missions will include landers and orbiters that will survey the moon for signs of water, mineral deposits, and other features that will help prepare for future long-duration missions.

These will include the Lunar Polar Exploration Mission, a robotic spacecraft – jointly designed by the Indian and Japanese space agencies – which will drop a lunar rover that will explore the moon’s south pole region next year. Additionally, Russia is planning a lunar return after a 46-year hiatus with its Luna 25 mission which will study the composition of the lunar soil.

Suddenly, everyone is going to the moon – although this big comeback is not without controversy. Should we focus on sending humans to the moon? If so, how can the heavy costs of lunar colonization be justified? Should we instead rely on robots to exploit our resources? And what role should private enterprise have in sending humans into space? These questions reveal important divisions among scientists.

Among those who believe we should rely on automated devices and landers and avoid human involvement are British Astronomer Royal Martin Rees and American Astronomer Donald Goldsmith. They point to the huge cost of a single Artemis mission: around $2 billion. Plus, there’s the cost of keeping humans alive in space. “Astronauts need a lot more maintenance than robots, simply because their travel and surface operations require air, water, food, living space, and radiation shielding. harmful,” they state in their recent book. The end of the astronauts: why robots are the future of exploration.

Others claim that sending humans back to the moon would be an act of inspiration. Without a big problem to overcome, we lose what it means to be human. Sending men and women back to the lunar surface would be invigorating for humanity. Again, Rees and Goldsmith are dismissive. The Apollo missions were heroic events – for their time. Just returning to the moon will seem like a routine, despite the $90 billion cost of the Artemis program. Spend the money on other sciences, they say.

But others disagree. The legacy of the Apollo missions – particularly Apollo 17 which spent the longest time on the moon – was immense, said planetary scientist Professor Ian Crawford of Birkbeck College London. “Cernan and Schmitt traveled more than 30 kilometers above the surface of the moon in their rover. In comparison, the robot rovers we sent to Mars take years to cover the same distances.

Jack Schmitt On The Moon In 1972
Jack Schmitt on the moon in 1972. Photograph: NASA JSC ASU Andy Saunders

“Apollo 17 astronauts returned more than 100 kg of moon rock. Homemade robots yielded only small amounts in comparison. And both drilled three meters into the lunar soil to get samples – something robots have never done in years – and deployed a wide range of geophysical experiments. However, they only stayed there for three days. It shows you what humans can do. The Apollo program laid the foundation for modern planetary science and we need to return to the moon to build on what they started.

Scientists like Crawford argue that building research stations such as those erected in Antarctica offers the best option for science. “These don’t need to be manned all the time, at least initially, but for short periods like many polar research centres. There are so many things we can do on the moon, but we need humans there to maximize the scientific return. Eventually, you might see these bases evolve into actual colonies, but that’s not something that’s likely to happen for maybe a century.

Many factors, including financial ones, will clearly affect how quickly the moon opens up to human occupation and these will determine how busy the moon becomes in the decades to come. In his book, The last man on the moon, Cernan remembers stopping as he took his final steps on the lifeless, airless surface toward the spacecraft that would take him back to Earth. “I took a moment to kneel down and with one finger I scratched [my daughter] Tracy’s initials, TDC, in the moon dust, knowing that those three letters would remain there untouched for more years than anyone could imagine.

It remains to be seen how much of the rest of the lunar surface will be touched or scarred by humans this century. Will we soon cover its plains and craters with evidence of our arrival. Or will the few marks in the ground, and the odd piece of abandoned Apollo kit, be the only evidence left to show that our species once slipped the surly bonds of Earth and reached another world.


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