Why NASA Wants to Go Back to the Moon

The space agency’s upcoming lunar mission will launch the ambitious Artemis program, building on the landings 50 years ago.

WITH THE ARTEMIS 1 mission scheduled to blast off in a few weeks, NASA is poised to return to the moon for the first time in half a century. It’s a major step in a formidable plan to launch new spacecraft, assemble a lunar space station, and bring humans back to the moon for the first time since the end of the Apollo program, when astronauts Gene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt were the last people to set foot on the dusty regolith.

Artemis 1 will mark the inaugural launch of a 32-story rocket called the Space Launch System, topped by the Orion space capsule. The capsule will fly within 62 miles of the lunar surface, while deploying small spacecraft for research on—and beyond—the moon. Although this first flight will be uncrewed, others with astronauts will follow in the coming years, and Orion is capable of carrying humans farther than any spacecraft has ever flown before. While the momentous Artemis 1 mission includes some research objectives, it serves as a technology demonstration and a symbol. “To all of us who gazed up at the moon, dreaming of the day humankind returns to the lunar surface, we are going back. That journey, our journey, begins with Artemis 1,” said NASA chief Bill Nelson at a virtual press conference in early August.

The Artemis 1 launch period begins in late August, with NASA planning for the morning of August 29, and backup dates on September 2 and 5.

If the liftoff from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, the moon flyby, and Orion’s reentry and splashdown off the coast of San Diego in October go as planned, Artemis 2 will go ahead. On that first crewed mission in 2024, four astronauts will do a moon flyby. Then comes Artemis 3 in 2025 or 2026, the first lunar landing since 1972, which will include the first woman to walk on the moon. Astronauts aboard Artemis 4 in 2027 will deliver the I-HAB module, which will become crews’ main living quarters aboard the Lunar Gateway station in its orbit around the moon.

The Artemis program has been in the works since 2017, and so far, it has cost about $40 billion. Its primary goal will be establishing a sustained presence on the moon in the form of a space station and a lunar base camp or colony, as part of NASA’s broader push to prioritize human space travel. “We are beginning a long-term journey of science and exploration,” said Bhavya Lal, an associate NASA administrator, at last week’s press conference. “We have done our early reconnaissance with both robots and humans, and now we are learning what we need to know to be able to spend more time on the moon, and then to prepare for going to Mars and beyond.”

Indeed, Artemis fits into NASA’s long-term “Moon to Mars” program, as the space agency envisions sending astronauts to the Red Planet within 20 years. “Everything that we’re doing on the lunar surface, we’re doing to explore for science, and we’re going not just for ‘flags and footprints,’ as some people refer to [Apollo], but also to test out all of the systems that we’ll eventually need to bring down risks for a human mission to Mars,” says Cathy Koerner, a deputy associate administrator at NASA, based at Johnson Space Center in Houston.

These include the development of the Gateway robotics and habitat modules for crews, as well as a lunar rover, all of which could be precursors for future technologies on Mars. Next-generation spacesuits, to be developed by Axiom Space and Collins Aerospace, will include improved life support and communication systems and would allow for extra mobility.

Assuming the early Artemis missions are successful, on subsequent voyages more components will be dispatched to the moon station, and astronauts will be deployed for extended jaunts on the lunar soil, possibly for weeks at a time. “As we’re doing these missions, they’re getting more and more complex. And so the infrastructure to support them gets more and more complex,” Koerner says.

Although no passengers will travel on Artemis 1, the capsule will carry along three mannequins. The male one, dubbed Commander Moonikin Campos thanks to a public naming contest, has been used for Orion vibration tests. He will fly alongside two female mannequin torsos, made from materials that mimic the bones, soft tissues, and organs of an adult woman. All of them will be equipped with sensors for detecting space radiation, because prolonged exposure can harm astronauts’ health. (The European Space Agency, which is collaborating with NASA on the flight, is sending along a Shaun the Sheep doll.)

The mission will also deploy 10 shoebox-sized spacecraft called CubeSats, some of which will map the moon’s surface and study its pockets of ice, while others will test a space radiation shield or proceed to more distant spots, like a near-Earth asteroid.

The Artemis project will also serve as a test bed for technologies developed through public-private partnerships. NASA has already worked with Terran Orbital and Rocket Lab to launch a small spacecraft known as Capstone, which is currently scouting the future orbit of the Lunar Gateway. Maxar Technologies of Westminster, Colorado, will provide Gateway’s power and propulsion, while Northrop Grumman ​​of Dulles, Virginia, is working on the HALO module, a small area where the first Gateway astronauts will live and conduct research. SpaceX will launch both of those on a Falcon Heavy rocket in late 2024.

Grand programs also create opportunities for global diplomacy and relationships among space agencies. NASA is working with many international partners on Artemis, with the European Space Agency providing Orion’s service module on Artemis 1 and collaborating on Gateway’s I-HAB. Japan’s space agency is developing a cargo supply spacecraft for Gateway and is looking into the concept of a pressurized moon rover, inside which astronauts would be able to take off their bulky spacesuits. Canada’s space agency is designing a robotic arm for the station. A total of 21 countries have also signed on to the Artemis Accords, the US government’s attempt to establish best practices for future international exploration of the moon.

Yet a project as ambitious as returning to the moon is not always a political winner. It’s expensive, for one thing. Some critics, like former NASA deputy administrator Lori Garver, have called out the ballooning cost of the agency’s building its own Space Launch System—at a time when SpaceX is developing the less expensive Super Heavy rocket, along with the reusable Starship spacecraft.

And programs that extend through many presidential administrations with different space priorities can be vulnerable to shifting political winds. Sometimes a program won’t survive a transition in power at the White House. Former US presidents George W. Bush and Donald Trump—who initiated the Artemis program—favored lunar missions, while former president Barack Obama focused on launching humans to Mars. “Artemis has spanned multiple presidential administrations, so that bodes well. But there are still a lot of unknowns, and it’s a large investment,” says Teasel Muir-Harmony, a space historian and curator at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC.

Public opinion can shift, as well, Muir-Harmony points out. Many Americans initially opposed the former Kennedy and Johnson administrations’ gigantic investment in the Apollo program—which dwarfs funding for Artemis today, as a fraction of the nation’s gross domestic product. But all that changed after the historic moon landing in 1969.

The space race with the former Soviet Union also spurred the Apollo program, but today potential competition with China, Russia, or even private space companies doesn’t drive investments in moon exploration the same way. Recent surveys show more public support for NASA’s climate research and efforts to monitor asteroids that could be on a collision course with Earth. (One of the goals of the Artemis program will be sharing off-planet images with the public, meant to inspire new generations, as the iconic Earthrise photo taken by astronaut Bill Anders on Apollo 8 did back in 1968.)

While much has changed since the 1960s and ’70s, Muir-Harmony says, the legacy of the Apollo program still looms large. It starts with the name itself: In Greek mythology, Artemis is the twin sister of Apollo. And NASA officials, she says, have made a case that Artemis should go beyond “flags and footprints”—in other words, that it must build on the achievements of Apollo. “Its presence is felt today. When you look at the rationale behind Artemis, when we talk about Artemis, it’s an essential part of that conversation,” she says. “I think it helps to build excitement. There’s a renewing of that sense of purpose. There’s some nostalgia for that, some recognition that Apollo brought a lot of people together and focused them on a really challenging goal, and in doing so it tested the best of our abilities.”