Photo by Joel Kowsky / NASA
Independence Day isn’t the only thing Americans have to celebrate this month; July 20 is the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing. And while the accomplishment is certainly a source of pride, the fact that we haven’t returned to the moon for the last 47 of those 50 years puts a bit of a damper on the festivities. However, we’re going back, as NASA recently released updated plans for a manned return to the moon in five years.
Landing humans on the moon in 1969—less than a decade after President Kennedy announced the United States’ commitment to the feat—is one of the most remarkable and inspiring triumphs in human history. It is a testament to what mankind is capable of achieving with the necessary resources and a shared sense of purpose, though much of that shared sense of purpose came from the Space Race largely acting as an extension of the Cold War arms race with the former USSR.
Photo Courtesy of NASA
Landing humans on the moon in 1969—less than a decade after President Kennedy announced the United States’ commitment to the feat—is one of the most remarkable and inspiring triumphs in human history.
Following Apollo 11’s successful lunar landing mission, the United States undertook five more successful voyages to the moon (see sidebar) before the Apollo program came to an end. Without an enemy in the Space Race following the collapse of the Soviet Union, even space shuttle missions to Earth’s orbit were deemed too costly by many, and so the shuttle program came to an end in 2011, leaving U.S. astronauts to hitch rides on Russian Soyuz rockets to reach the International Space Station.
However, the pendulum always swings back to the other side, and in 2017 President Trump signed Space Policy Directive 1, an initiative to send astronauts back to the moon by 2024, with the ultimate goal of using it as a staging platform to get to Mars. The president followed through on his plans recently when he announced his 2020 budget, which earmarked an additional $1.6 billion above the $21 billion budget he had already requested for NASA to support the effort. Tumultuous political climate aside, the idea of returning to the moon and kickstarting a mission to Mars is just plain exciting—appealing to the optimistic futurist in all of us.
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The Artemis lunar program—named for the twin sister of Apollo—will utilize a spiffy new rocket called the SLS and a freshly designed spacecraft called Orion to launch a team of four astronauts (two of whom will descend to the surface while two remain in orbit) on a mission to the moon’s south pole. And while the thought of moon-penguins is adorable, NASA scientists actually chose that landing site because it is believed to have one of the greatest concentrations of accessible resources on the satellite—possibly including ice—which could be useful for sustaining repeat visits and supplying ships with fuel and other necessities en route to Mars.
With such an aggressive timeline in place, progress updates have been coming fast. In May alone, NASA announced partnerships with private companies to develop propulsion systems and lunar landers for the Artemis program as well as deliver scientific payloads to the moon’s surface in advance of the crewed mission. And speaking of the crew, for the first time in history, NASA wants to ensure that one of the two astronauts who descends to the surface in the lunar lander is a woman.
Photo Courtesy of NASA
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In a recent tweet, President Trump reinforced that his ultimate priority is Mars. To that, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine later clarified in a statement that while Mars is the ultimate goal, the moon mission is and remains an important step on the way to that goal.
Between the strides made by commercial companies like SpaceX and NASA’s recommitment to manned lunar missions, it seems that we may be entering a new golden age of space exploration. And frankly, after years of consuming dystopic portrayals of the future in media, it’s a nice palette cleanser to imagine the great gains that the future may hold. Space tourism, anyone?
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APOLLO 1 (February 21, 1967)
The first Apollo mission ended in tragedy before it even began when all three astronauts perished in a fire on the launch pad. The next three Apollo missions were unmanned tests.
APOLLO 7 (October 11 to 22, 1968)
Despite some bickering between the astronauts and ground control, this Earth-orbit test went off without a hitch. (Some tests predating Apollo 1 were added to the program’s numbering, hence the jump in designation to Apollo 7.)
APOLLO 8 (December 21 to 27, 1968)
The crew of Apollo 8 were able to reach the moon and orbit it for 20 hours before successfully returning to Earth.
APOLLO 9 (March 3 to 13, 1969)
This launch into Earth’s orbit proved the viability of the landing module that would be used to sustain human life on the surface of the moon.
APOLLO 10 (May 18 to 26, 1969)
Orbiting the moon, command module “Charlie Brown” sent a crewed lunar module “Snoopy” to test all aspects of a surface landing—except the landing itself. So close, yet so far away…
APOLLO 11 (July 16 to 24, 1969)
This is the big one. On July 21, Commander Neil Armstrong became the first person to step on the Moon, and uttered his immortal phrase, “That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.”
APOLLO 12 (November 14 to 24, 1969)
The second group of moon walkers spent more than three times as long as their predecessors on the surface.
APOLLO 13 (April 11 to 17, 1970)
Immortalized in the Ron Howard movie of the same name, Apollo 13 is perhaps the second most well-known lunar mission after Apollo 11. The expedition became a struggle for survival after an oxygen tank rupture, although, like most Hollywood blockbusters, this story has a happy ending.
APOLLO 14 (January 31 to February 9, 1971)
One of the most iconic images in moon photography was captured when Apollo 14 Commander and avid golfer Alan Shepard teed off with a modified 6-iron head attached to a scooping tool and two golf balls that he had smuggled aboard the spacecraft.
APOLLO 15 (July 26 to August 7, 1971)
Astronauts first got to go joyriding across the lunar surface in the moon rover, which debuted on this mission. It also marked the first deep-space walk.
APOLLO 16 (April 16 to 27, 1972)
Though a landing delay cut the expedition short by a day, it was otherwise a complete success.
APOLLO 17 (December 7 to 19, 1972)
The astronauts of final Apollo mission spent a longer time on the lunar surface than any of their predecessors and brought back the biggest payload of collected samples.