The Artemis 1 launch has been postponed till at least on Friday, but the excitement over a new venture to space won't abate anytime soon.
The return of U.S. spacecraft to the moon for the first time in 50 years is generating all kinds of buzz, including talk about the long-term possibility of eventually launching a mission to Mars.
And while the 32-story-tall Space Launch System rocket and its 8.8 million pounds of thrust will do much of the initial heavy lifting after takeoff, the unmanned Orion spacecraft will be conducting must of the critical work for NASA’s scientists during its 42-day journey as it orbits the moon and hightails another 40,000 miles beyond it.
While it’s clear NASA as a brand won’t become dull anytime soon — one superficial reason being the number of NASA tee shirts and swag we see as we go around town — the U.S. space program has always garnered its share of critics, largely over the cost. Artemis 1 is no different.
The rocket that is hugely important to the Artemis 1 mission is one such target of critics — the first three launches during the entire Artemis project alone will each cost approximately $4 billion, an amount that would make plenty squawk especially if you consider what the U.S. spends, or skimps on, various social programs. Critics of the Artemis 1 launch also say this project’s total price tag, an estimated $93 billion, is the outcome of a combination of powerful allies in Congress, stubborn bureaucracy and problems with government contractors.
So, why not just let private companies like SpaceX carry on with 21st-century space exploration and take that off the U.S. federal government’s plate? Well, to start, for all of its fits and starts, the U.S. space program has been about furthering knowledge — not generating publicity by letting a few chosen billionaires and celebrities score some pricey thrills in the outer reaches of the Earth’s atmosphere. Sure, the launches and missions over the years have spawned copious media coverage and iconic images, but much of the hard work and innovation that occurs behind the scenes largely goes on, for the most part unheralded.
NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory is one stakeholder in the U.S. space program that’s pleased to remind you of the various technologies that have emerged from the decades-old quest to explore the moon and beyond. The list is long: smartphone cameras, LED lighting, scratch-resistant lenses, CAT scan technology, athletic shoes, landmine removal, foil blankets, water purification systems, memory foam, laptops and, for Trader Joe’s fans and hard-core backpackers, freeze dried foods such as fruit, curry entrees and buffalo-spiced chicken-and-mac-and-cheese meals.
But, there are additional reasons why space exploration presents society with long-term benefits. National security is among them. Related jobs and careers in STEM that result from this Artemis 1 project won’t necessarily be limited to working for NASA or the U.S. military comprise another benefit. (Fun fact: Artemis 1 has this first for NASA — it will have a launch director who is a woman.) Finally, environmental awareness is another reason to consider.
Remember that no human laid actual eyes on Earth — as in seeing the planet it its entirety — until the Apollo 8 mission in December 1968. “It can be argued, cogently, that lunar travel – humanity’s first venture into deep space – transformed our understanding of our place in the universe,” wrote the U.K’s Observer editorial board yesterday.
The astronaut Bill Anders photographs of the Earth in 1968 gave the public a perspective of the world not as oceans and continents, but as an entire entity. "We came all this way to explore the moon, and the most important thing is that we discovered the Earth," Anders said after that mission.
Seven months later, Neil Armstrong took his historic first steps on the moon. He later remarked, “It suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth. I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth. I didn’t feel like a giant. I felt very, very small.”
It was those images that helped spark growing environmental awareness within and beyond the U.S., which helped lead to the first Earth Day a year later.
As the Observer summed up:
“Anders, Armstrong and the other Apollo astronauts had a profound impact in changing our perspectives of our world. Their observations and experiences underlined the fragility of the Earth and played a key role in the birth of the environment movement in the late 1960s. From that perspective, lunar travel can be seen to have provided value for money and suggests there is still something to be gained from continuing to put men and women into space. Working out the exact price tag is more problematic but the placing of human beings on the surface of another world should be looked at as an act that is generally beneficial to our species.”
If you missed the live coverage of the launch, sites such as Space.com will host a replay of the countdown, launch and liftoff into space.
Image credit: Pedro Lastra via Unsplash
Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.
Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.