If all goes to plan on Monday, the first vehicle in 50 years that is capable of ferrying humans to the moon will lift off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The giant Space Launch System rocket will hurl aloft an Orion spacecraft, designed to carry up to six astronauts, on a 1.3m mile test mission labelled Artemis 1. If successful, the 42-day flight, which will take its unmanned Orion craft 40,000 miles beyond the far side of the moon, will demonstrate that the United States is once again ready to put humans on the lunar surface.
The achievement will come at a price, however. The US taxpayer will pay $93bn to fund the Artemis programme that will take humans back to the moon before acting later as a springboard to send astronauts to Mars. It is a colossal investment and there are nagging doubts that it is justified at a time when private space companies, such as Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin and Elon Musk’s SpaceX, are developing giant reusable rockets that could slash deep-space mission costs. From this perspective, many analysts say that private enterprise should bear the brunt of ferrying people to the moon and Mars.
Indeed, major questions are now being raised about the justification of sending men and women into space at all. Robots need no food, air or toilet facilities and there is no requirement to bring them back to Earth, unlike humans. Let automated craft do the dirty work, many scientists assert.
Such arguments are unlikely to have much sway at a time when China and Russia are both vying to establish themselves as major space powers and have revealed plans to construct their own space stations. In today’s strained political climate, the US cannot be expected to allow such enterprises to proceed without providing its own commitment to flagship projects that will involve crewed missions.
In any case, there is much to be said for sending human beings above the comforting blanket of Earth’s atmosphere and into further reaches of the solar system. It can be argued, cogently, that lunar travel – humanity’s first venture into deep space – transformed our understanding of our place in the universe.
In December 1968, on Apollo 8, the first mission that flew astronauts to the moon, Bill Anders photographed Earth’s blue disc rising dramatically over the lunar terrain. His Earthrise image showed our planet not as continents or oceans but – for the first time – as an entire world, a single disc in the cosmic dark that gave no hint that help from elsewhere could ever save us from ourselves.
Seven months later, in July 1969, Neil Armstrong was also struck by the sight of the Earth – “that tiny pea, pretty and blue” – hanging in the sky above his Apollo 11 Eagle lander craft. “I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth.” Did that make the first man on the moon feel like a giant? “No,” he later recalled. “I felt very, very small.”
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.