Just a few weeks ago, on the 16th of November to be precise, I woke up at 5h45 in the morning (UK time) and went to my living room in my pyjamas to watch and comment on the historic launch of the SLS rocket with fellow YouTube panellists (on the Space Oddities channel). We were transfixed as NASA’s super heavy-lift launch vehicle, decades in the making and suffering from eyewatering overrun costs, finally took flight and proved its cynics wrong. The Artemis program had truly started.
And what a start it was!
Even more impressive than the already awe-inspiring Heavy Falcon from SpaceX (the fourth biggest rocket to reach the orbit after Saturn V, SLS and Energia, although it is not designed to launch crewed flights), the SLS soared into the night sky from Pad 39B at Kennedy Space Center and sent the uncrewed Orion capsule on a clean trajectory towards the Moon. Human spaceflight aficionados had been waiting to regain such launch capabilities since the Apollo program was mothballed half a century ago; it's been a long time coming.
At the time of writing, the Orion capsule is going strong as it has reached the mid-point of its Moon mission and its farthest distance from Earth at nearly 435,000 kilometres. Let me rewrite this as it is remarkable: Orion is currently orbiting the Moon! Even more remarkable, in 2024, we will have crews onboard as NASA moves forward with the second stage of the Artemis program: Artemis II. The overall goal of the program is to enable human exploration of the Moon in preparation for a future crewed mission towards Mars (an outcome I am not particularly keen on, but that is for another post).
So, what will Artemis do for us, you might ask? How will regular crewed missions to the Moon change us? How can it help us during these tough and turbulent times?
I might answer such questions with the usual response that facing these challenges helps us expand technology, create new industries, and foster a peaceful connection with other nations. Instead, I like to be reminded of one of the unexpected outcomes of the Apollo program: the unplanned pictures of Earth taken by the Apollo astronauts, such as “Earthrise” in 1966 or the “Blue Marble” in 1972 and how profoundly these resonated with the public.
In fact, they changed the way we see the world.
As I write in my book “Imaging our Solar System”, the pictures of our seemingly fragile planet rising in the darkness of space from the lunar surface were some of the most influential environmental photographs ever taken and are in part responsible for the beginning of the environmental movement that blossomed through the world during this period. In the words of Gene Cernan, the eleventh Astronaut to walk on the Moon: “We went to the Moon and discovered Earth instead.”
The famous Earthrise shot taken in December 1968 by Apollo 8 astronaut William 'Bill' Anders on Christmas eve in 1968 while orbiting the Moon. Credit: NASA.
In light of what happened with Apollo, I expect Artemis to change us in ways we haven’t considered yet.
I expect the unexpected.
Onwards and upwards.