Why is NASA Going Back to the Moon? | Unveiled

VOICE OVER: Noah Baum WRITTEN BY: Dylan Musselman
When Neil Armstrong took his first steps on the lunar surface in July 1969, it could've been a breakthrough moment leading to decades of human exploration... Instead, humanity quickly lost interest in the moon, and nobody has returned for generations! But that could all be about to change thanks to NASA's Artemis Program! In this video, Unveiled takes a closer look at the pioneering Artemis Program, to discover exactly what NASA hopes to achieve by finally revisiting the moon, after nearly half a century away!

Why NASA is Going Back to the Moon

When Neil Armstrong took his first steps on the lunar surface in July 1969, it could’ve been a breakthrough moment leading to decades of human exploration. Instead, when the Apollo 17 mission ended in December 1972, just three-and-a-half years later, it also signalled the end of Earth’s interest in sending humans to its closest satellite - with Gene Cernan going down in history as the last person to walk on the moon. But that particular statistic could soon become outdated….

This is Unveiled, and today we’re answering the extraordinary question; Why is NASA going back to the moon?

Although simple curiosity might’ve seemed reason enough to aim for the moon the first time around, there were other, more political factors in play. At the time, America and the Soviet Union were locked in Cold War, and one of the main motivations for a manned moon landing was for one to demonstrate technological prowess over the other. The Soviet Union were the first to put a man into space in general; but it was the USA who won the race to the moon - after pumping around $25 billion into the Apollo project at the then-still-fairly-fledgling space organisation, NASA.

With mission complete and political point made, however, NASA would receive a lower and lower percentage of US federal spend from that point forwards. And, with the budget cut, the international situation changed and interest apparently waning, the Agency rarely even toyed with the idea of sending astronauts to the moon again - preferring instead to send much cheaper and far less risky remote-controlled orbiters. Fast forward to today, though, and as the push for general solar system exploration has gained more and more traction - especially with prospective missions to Mars - there’s new vigour for a return to our closest celestial body; the moon.

In 2017, the Artemis Program was launched - a majority-NASA initiative which now has the goal of sending “the first woman and the next man” to the moon. Originally, the aim was to do so by 2028, but that date was then accelerated to 2024. During the build-up, we could see an unmanned launch in 2020, and a manned launch “trial run” in 2022. And if (or when) Artemis succeeds in its mission, the plan is to return to the moon at least once every year afterwards. Even more so than with the original Apollo Program, where getting there was challenge enough(!), Artemis hopes to provide an unprecedented opportunity to explore much more of the moon… and to inspire multiple generations of children to enter into careers based in space, science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Of course, as in the 1960s, some argue that there are other motivations for returning to the moon, as well. Mainly money. As the Program isn’t solely NASA’s doing, but instead a joint partnership with a number of other private corporations and some space agencies (like the ESA and CSA), NASA itself has cited one of the main reasons for the missions is to “broaden commercial and international partnerships”. The plans see private aerospace firms contracted to jumpstart a “lunar economy” - not only by building the equipment necessary to travel to the moon, but also everything that’s needed once we get there again.

Among those enlisted for the effort are Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, both of which are set to design and engineer people-carrying lunar landers - among other things. At least nine other companies are also key to provide parts and conduct research. In this way, the Artemis Program as a collaboration is really the culmination of years’ worth of development and change in the space travel industry. Increasingly, private space firms have achieved incredible feats of technology - like the reusable Falcon 9 rocket from SpaceX - so the joining of government-backed space agencies and proven private businesses seems a lucrative but also natural step.

Beyond the economic incentives, perhaps the main reason to return to the moon is to set up a long-term presence on and around it. If its loftiest ambitions are met, the Artemis Program will not only get us to the moon… but it could enable us to never leave. The year-on-year schedule is important here, ensuring that specially trained astronauts are able to build a long-term settlement on the surface. We’ve seen something similar in the past, as astronauts from all around the world have taken months-long “shifts” in space to build and inhabit the International Space Station.

The objectives for the Artemis astronauts once they’ve landed include finding a reliable water supply and uncovering other critical resources on the moon itself to ensure an at least partly self-sustaining presence. In years gone by, interest in “living on the moon” arguably may have faltered because the watching public felt that there was simply nothing there. But now we better understand that even that apparent nothingness presents a valuable challenge if we ever hope to venture anywhere other than Earth. Today, the moon might even be seen as relatively “safe” first step out into the solar system; a comparatively manageable three-day trip next to something like our plans for Mars, and a suitable opportunity to test various ways we could live on other worlds.

In fact, the Artemis Program could well be viewed as simply the start of a long line of initiatives with a view toward Mars and other planets. A prospective moon base allows us to find out things like; What kind of material works best for building? What types of food can we reliably grow? How should we fuel various machines? And whether, in general, there are any unforeseen issues when living in space long-term? Fine tune all of those, and suddenly a manned mission to Mars feels a lot more possible!

Meanwhile, the Artemis missions are also even more directly linked to the Mars-bound missions that could follow… and that’s because the moon is the ideal launch site for any ship destined for the Red Planet. The lack of atmosphere and weaker gravity means that it would require far less fuel (and would therefore be far more feasible and cheaper) to jet off from a lunar launch pad rather than from Earth. NASA is already labelling this particular proposal as “#Moon2Mars”, as it looks ahead to a time when our most ambitious deep space missions are fully launched from the moon.

The Artemis Program is still a massive undertaking in itself, however. And with other space-faring nations like Russia and China all also reportedly pushing for permanent moon bases, this new phase in space exploration could yet develop into another space race. Irrespective of who gets there first, though, the importance of the moon has once again been made clear - and not since the ‘60s has there been a bigger drive to get there!

The Artemis Program aims to break new ground; to put us on the moon and keep us there. But it could also transform our very way of thinking about the moon. In the not-to-distant future, that distant orb in the night sky might be more than just our mysterious, single satellite… it could be the first credible human outpost, as we look to venture further and further into space. And that’s why NASA is going back to the moon.