NASA Is Returning to the Moon This Week. Why Do We Feel Conflicted?

NASA  plans this week to return to the moon for the first time since Apollo 17 in 1972. The effort is part of a series of spaceflights under the agency’s  Artemis program. After multiple delays, the first Artemis launch — a test flight without crew members — is slated for early Wednesday. (No doubt NASA’s fingers are crossed.)

Eventually, the program will launch a crew of astronauts, including the first woman and the first person of color to land on the moon, with the  goal to establish a long-term lunar presence.

NASA Is Returning to the Moon This Week. Why Do We Feel Conflicted?
Gregg Newton/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Space journalist Shannon Stirone hosted a written online conversation with Leroy Chiao, a retired NASA astronaut, Lori Garver, former deputy administrator of NASA, and David Grinspoon, an astrobiologist, about the big questions surrounding the Artemis launch, including whether the financial costs are worth it and what’s gained, or not, by sending humans to space.

Shannon Stirone: How’s everyone feeling about NASA returning to the moon after almost 50 years? Leroy, let’s start with you as the one who has been to space.

Leroy Chiao: I’m glad we’re finally going to launch this rocket (hopefully). It has been a long time, and a lot of money. Since I was inspired to become an astronaut by the Apollo moon missions, I would have loved a chance to go to the moon myself. But I have mixed feelings, though I hope that we have a successful mission. It is always exciting to see a new vehicle fly.

For perspective, we went from creating NASA to landing humans on the moon in just under 11 years. This program has, in one version or another, been ongoing since 2004. SpaceX, on the other hand, has made tremendous progress since starting not long before 2004. I would bet on  SpaceX to land humans on the moon before NASA.

Stirone: David, you’ve  shared how inspiring the Apollo mission was for you, but you’re having trouble getting excited for Artemis. How do you reconcile the longing for that inspiration with this program?

Grinspoon: I find myself so conflicted about this, and I’m trying to figure out why. Part of the problem is that it feels a bit like a do-over of Apollo. It’s not supposed to be: In theory it’s the beginning of a sustained presence on the moon, which is an exciting idea. But I have doubts about whether it is sustainable, given the costs and the politics. But also, it looks like a  Saturn V, so there’s this strange sense of nostalgia mixed in, which I don’t trust. Yet, I know when it gets close to launch, when we’re counting down, I’ll get tears in my eyes and feel the thrill all over again.

Lori Garver: Like Leroy and David, I have very mixed feelings. I agree that sending humans to the moon again could offer meaningful benefits to the United States and society as a whole, but I don’t believe the way we are going about it is sustainable because we are using outdated and expensive single-use technologies. Apollo was a race, so doing it in that fashion was the right thing to do. We’ve now spent tens of billions of dollars and over a dozen years doing it again — just saying it is sustainable doesn’t make it so.

Stirone: True. We often tout human exploration as a marker of technological progress, but the truth is we don’t need to go back to the moon other than to demonstrate, as we did in the 1960s, that we can. Is human landing on the moon a mark of progress, or does scientific discovery matter more? What do we gain from humans on the moon?

Chiao: We have not sent people to the moon since 1972, so we don’t have the capability to do so immediately now. It is a bit of a “do-over”, but we have to relearn these things before we can go on to Mars, another NASA  goal.

Grinspoon: There’s also a huge wealth of scientific knowledge to be gained by a return to the moon. There are really important, fundamental questions about the history of Earth, the history of life. There are wonderful investigations we can do there. Now, if you gave me $100 billion just for science, this is not how I would spend it. But science has always been a passenger in human spaceflight, not the driver.

Shannon: What has been the driver, if not science?

David: Well, as Lori and Leroy mentioned, in the past getting to the moon was a race, with a mix of national pride, national security and science as the passenger. Now it seems perhaps more economically driven.

I’m speaking here of human spaceflight by the way. The robotic missions are a different matter and have always been much more science-driven and more efficient, by orders of magnitude, at returning knowledge for the investment.

Garver: I think it’s about geopolitical leadership. Human spaceflight has largely been motivated in this way. And I’m disappointed we seem to be doing it the old way. In my mind, being a geopolitical leader today means advancing the state of art, knowledge, science and humanity. Space offers this in many ways, and again, lunar science and exploration are a valuable part of this. However, this has been driven by a handful of members of Congress. It should be about a larger purpose.

Stirone: Lori, you’ve argued that NASA shouldn’t spend billions to send people back to the moon, but should instead focus on technologies to help with climate change and  what’s happening on Earth. How do we balance the political desire for a grand program like this, and never-been-done-before exploration?

Garver: I really don’t think it is an either-or. I think it is a question of priorities, and right now, I’d prioritize utilizing the unique vantage of space to help us understand and solve the climate crisis.

The perspective we have of the Earth from space has given us so much knowledge, and NASA is a trusted resource that could help people across the country and around the world limit human suffering and see that we are in this together. Doing that while lowering the cost of space transportation and expanding humanity’s presence beyond the atmosphere is absolutely wonderful. But we spend about $12 billion sending a handful of people to space and about $2 billion understanding the planet that about eight billion people live on today.

Stirone: Leroy, is Artemis the kind of mission that would have interested you as an astronaut?

Chiao: If I were in my prime now at NASA, I would be very interested.

However, having said that, one reason I left NASA in 2005 is still valid today: I am not at all certain or convinced that this program will succeed in landing humans on the moon. The costs and delays are only parts of the problem.

The ideal way to do this would be to expand the collaboration between NASA and SpaceX in this effort, and leverage the strengths of each: operational excellence and experience from NASA, and innovation and speed from SpaceX.

Stirone: I’m curious about your thoughts on this, David. If Congress hadn’t  passed legislation that NASA had to use the  Space Launch System, or SLS, for this mission, and NASA instead worked with SpaceX, would it have a greater chance of success? Is that a partnership you’d be excited about?

Grinspoon: Well, the current path seems unsustainable, so I think all such partnerships need to be explored. International partnerships, too. Honestly, I just want to get the data from new lunar samples and new geological surveys of the moon. I’ll take a ride with almost anybody!

Stirone: What are your biggest space science questions right now? Will Artemis help answer them?

Grinspoon: There are huge missing chapters in our understanding of the early history of Earth and its neighboring planets — or chapters for which we only have vague cartoons rather than reliable narratives. Earth’s early history has been largely destroyed by the wonderful, restless activity of our planet. All the geology, weather, climate change and life itself — it all renews the surface constantly, so there is very little direct record of the first few billion years. But it’s all there on the moon.

We know Earth suffered a massive bombardment from space for the first billion years, but we don’t know a lot about it. The moon suffered the same bombardment, but that record has not been wiped away because the moon is so geologically quiet compared to Earth. We can learn what really happened here. We will find four billion-year-old rocks from Earth on the moon! They are waiting there for us, and they will tell us answers to some of our deepest questions about our origins.

Stirone: To your point, the science potential on the moon is incredibly valuable. But shouldn’t we have spent all of the funds for the human mission on robotic science missions instead?

Grinspoon: Well, realistically we were never going to get equivalent funds to just do science with robots. Can you imagine if we did?

Stirone: I do! All the time.

Grinspoon: We could have orbiters around every planet in the solar system for a fraction of the cost of Artemis. But nobody gave us that option. In reality, the main reasons to send humans are other intangibles, some mentioned already, but also for inspiration and the human drive to explore, and reasons that I would even call spiritual. And as a scientist, I have to say, if we are going to go for these other reasons, then let’s be sure and set it up in such a way that we can do some great and important science while we’re there.

Garver: Going to and from space is expensive. Lowering the cost of space activities would allow us — whether it’s governments, consortiums, companies, etc. — to do more meaningful things in the domain.

The things that we can do from space that are unique will expand as the barriers lessen. To the extent we are talking about public tax dollars, they should be leveraged to open space — including the moon — for these other meaningful purposes. Perhaps the lunar science David mentioned could be done by robots, if access were available. There are as many reasons to utilize space as there are the oceans and the atmosphere. We are only at the beginning.

I think the reason the three of us aren’t as enthused about Artemis is that it is most definitely not reducing the barriers to doing more in space or on the moon. In my view, the cost and time spent on SLS and  Orion have set the space program back.

Stirone: Leroy, NASA  says: “We’re going back to the moon for scientific discovery, economic benefits, and inspiration for a new generation of explorers: the Artemis Generation”. As someone who has been to space, do you think a crewed mission is required to inspire people to be interested in space exploration?

Chiao: It’s a balance. I’m a big supporter of robotic space missions as well as human ones. Humans relate to other humans doing the exploration. We have sent probes into the upper atmosphere, and down to the deepest depths of the oceans, and have made many discoveries. But, when the first humans climbed Everest, and when the first human — fairly recently — went down to the floor of the Mariana Trench, that’s when the public got interested.

So, yes, the science is exciting to many, but the human experience is usually exciting to all.

Stirone: NASA says the agency will use what’s learned on and around the moon to inform sending astronauts to Mars. Is that a necessary step?

Chiao: The moon is a great place to develop and test hardware, and to train astronauts. That’s because the moon is only three to four days away from the Earth, with a similar environment to Mars: dusty, with reduced gravity and atmosphere. If there’s an issue, you can get your crew back quickly.

This lowers risk for a later Mars mission, which, even when the planets are aligned, is around a six-month, one-way trip.

Grinspoon: Getting to Mars will be harder than most people expect. It’s so much farther into deep space than anyone has ventured and we’re still not really sure how to handle the radiation risks, and so forth. Some colleagues and I recently  wrote a report suggesting that we send astronauts to Venus before Mars. That may sound strange, but the point is to go to a closer destination to try out our systems and make sure they are safe.

Stirone: Many elements of Artemis were forged over several presidential administrations, but it’s really a Trump-spurred program. It could be argued that the mission was built around the same  political divisiveness as Apollo. Can the program have widespread support among the science and space community, given how it began?

Grinspoon: One issue is that the rush to land on the moon by 2024 always seemed baldly political. Nobody believed it could be done, but everyone played along because it came from the administration. This gave it a strange taste. But most space enthusiasts remember all the initiatives that came from Bill Clinton, from George H. W. Bush. Many of us just want something to succeed, something to be built to last. Any system with decent longevity is going to have to survive multiple presidential administrations.

Garver: Having worked in both the Clinton and Obama administration’s at NASA, these political changes of administration are really not the most important issues. The aerospace community — a subset of the military industrial complex, for the most part — has been wanting to keep the contracts and facilities going that got started in the early days of human spaceflight. We have been on a treadmill, but not a very efficient one.

Now that we are reducing the cost of space access, we should be able to have more relevant goals that are of greater interest to society. Presidents support NASA and do what NASA says they should, for the most part.

Stirone: The Artemis mission plans to mark the milestones of landing the first woman and first person of color on the moon. Leroy, how important are these kinds of firsts?

Chiao: As a U.S. minority myself — I’m Chinese American — I’m happy to celebrate diversity and firsts. However, I believe this mandate is a mistake for several reasons. First, it will be seen by many as racist, and it is difficult to explain why it isn’t. Second, it sends a message to the other astronauts that they have no chance to go on that flight, no matter how talented they are or how much they achieve. Third, the people selected will always be under an undeserved aura of gossip that they were selected to go only because of gender and race.

One interesting question concerning this mandate: Would person of color include the possibility of an Asian-American being among the first back on the Moon? Or will my demographic also be excluded? In my personal experience, I have not been treated as a person of color by organizations such as NASA and elite universities.

Stirone: Any final thoughts?

Grinspoon: Even though we are all obviously somewhat skeptical of some of the specifics of this program, when the rocket is getting ready to launch, I will be madly cheering, rooting, screaming and probably crying. I want so badly for this to succeed and for all the hard work, good engineering and money from taxpayers to be rewarded with success. Especially when they launch people on that giant rocket, we will all be rooting for them.

Garver: Precisely. Everyone who worked on this deserves to have their work be successful and valued. For the most part, it is not their fault the design was established in ways that kept it from being efficient.

Chiao: Agree. It’s always exciting to see a new vehicle fly. But, I hope we find a more affordable and sustainable way to explore space with humans going forward.

Shannon Stirone is a science writer who covers space. Leroy Chiao is a former NASA astronaut and International Space Station commander and a current space educator. Lori Garver is a former deputy administrator of NASA and author of Escaping Gravity, founder of Earthrise Alliance, a climate philanthropic organization. David Grinspoon is an astrobiologist and ​​a senior scientist at the Planetary Science Institute and the author of Earth in Human Hands.

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