The Uncomfortable Truths of American Spaceflight
Update your calendars, everyone: NASA isn’t going to put people on the moon in 2024. The space agency announced yesterday that it is now aiming to send a crew to orbit the moon, Apollo 8 style, in May 2024, and then land astronauts on the surface, à la Apollo 11, sometime in 2025.
If your reaction to this news is something like, Wait a second, what? NASA is trying to land people on the moon again?—that’s fine. There are many, many, many more pressing matters to occupy Americans’ minds than what NASA may or may not be doing, and when. The Biden administration isn’t really talking it up either.
The current moon effort is called Artemis, named for Apollo’s sister in Greek mythology, and it arose during the Trump administration: After NASA officials made clear, to Donald Trump’s annoyance, that they couldn’t pull off a Mars landing before the end of his first term, the president pivoted to the moon, and in 2019 directed NASA to land Americans on the lunar surface in 2024, shaving four years off the agency’s then-goal of 2028. The Biden administration embraced the Artemis program in February and, until now, NASA had held onto 2024, reworking the previous administration’s promise to take “the next man and the first woman” to the moon to “the first woman and the first person of color.” The White House has barely breathed a word of it all year. President Joe Biden hasn’t publicly name-checked the program, and during a speech at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland last week, Vice President Kamala Harris mentioned only one moon landing—one that happened more than 50 years ago.
NASA is “getting geared up to go,” Bill Nelson, the NASA administrator under Biden, told reporters with enthusiasm yesterday, to plant another flag, to build habitats, to take what astronauts learn on the lunar surface and use it for future missions to Mars. Americans haven’t visited the moon since 1972, and the remnants of the Apollo landings sit like ghostly ruins—the American flags bleached white by the sun’s rays, the boot prints still etched into the regolith, the rovers coated in a thin layer of moon dust. That’s right: Astronauts actually drove on the moon half a century ago. If NASA could do all that then, repeating a moon landing now—with all the computing power and other technological advances that humanity has amassed in the accruing years—seems like it should be a breeze.
But as the new delay shows, it’s not. NASA and its commercial contractors are developing an arsenal of new equipment for these missions—rocket, lander, life-support systems—and they have a tremendous amount of work left to do. The spacesuits that NASA began developing in 2007 won’t be ready until at least 2025. The agency is not entirely starting from scratch—after all, it did this 50 years ago!—but the effort to return to the moon seems almost like a hassle now. So why is America going back at all?
In the 1960s, NASA had the budget, the political will, and the Cold War momentum to sprout a moon program and pull off a landing in a span of eight years. Some administrations since President John F. Kennedy’s have vowed to return—George W. Bush, for example, called for a landing in 2020—but the special circumstances that fueled the Apollo era have vanished. NASA’s funding accounts for just half a percent of the annual federal budget, compared with the 4.5 percent the agency enjoyed during the Apollo days. At every presidential election, NASA braces for a new shift in directive; Barack Obama took a “been there, done that” stance on the moon, before Trump pivoted right back.
John Logsdon, a longtime space historian who attended the Apollo 11 launch, once told me that the national drive that fueled the Apollo era has weakened. “That impulse is certainly less widespread than it was 50 years ago,” he said. And indeed, our motivations for traveling beyond Earth seem less intuitive now. In my years as a space reporter, most of the questions that have framed my stories about the American space effort have been fairly straightforward. Who? NASA usually, but, more often these days, Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos. What? A rocket, a rover, a telescope. When? T-minus minutes for a rocket, seven months for a Mars-bound probe, years for one heading to Jupiter. Where? A launchpad in Cape Canaveral, inside the rings of Saturn, beyond the asteroid belt. The why has often been more difficult to pin down, particularly for the risky, expensive missions that involve putting a human being on board. But there has always been a feeling of certainty in it. Now that human beings have figured out how to leave the planet and go somewhere else, why would we stop?
A few motivations drive American space travel today, some old and some new: national prestige, geopolitical power, economic opportunity, scientific knowledge. But space exploration can achieve each of those goals only to a limited extent. Certain American politicians warn of a new space race with China, but exploration projects these days rely more on international cooperation. The private sector is developing missions to mine the moon for resources, but the commercial market for them doesn’t yet exist. Some argue that space travel can lead to better technology on Earth, but that’s difficult to imagine now, when the most recent flashy development on the International Space Station consisted of tacos made with green chiles the crew grew on board. And science and discovery, perhaps the purest motivations, are subject to political whims. The Artemis program didn’t transpire because a bunch of lunar scientists got together in a room and decided to do it; it exists because Trump sought to bolster his presidential legacy.
Ignoring the reality of America’s ambivalence toward space travel is becoming much more difficult. Public-opinion surveys in recent years have shown that Americans want the country to prioritize other kinds of space activities; in a Morning Consult poll published in February, survey participants said the United States should focus more on climate-change research and the study of asteroids that could strike Earth. Only 8 percent said sending astronauts to the moon should be a top priority, and 7 percent said the same for a mission to Mars. Gil Scott-Heron’s words in “Whitey on the Moon,” from 1970, still resonate: “Can’t pay no doctor bill / But Whitey’s on the moon / 10 years from now I’ll be payin’ still / While Whitey’s on the moon.”
For years, NASA has insisted that Americans cared about space exploration anyway, and presented the Apollo effort as a product of national unity. (It wasn’t; polling shows that the moon program was unpopular for most of the 1960s, with the exception of a survey conducted in the immediate aftermath of the Apollo 11 landing.) As one space-policy wonk told me recently: “They’ve been coasting on the fact that a significant amount of people think that space is cool and they don’t have to argue why they do this.”
During yesterday’s call with reporters, Nelson, the NASA administrator, gave a hodgepodge of the usual reasons for a moon mission: bolstering scientific discovery, providing economic benefits, inspiring future generations of scientists and engineers, beating another nation to it. This time it’s China, which seeks to land its own astronauts on the moon soon. “We have every reason to believe that we have a very aggressive competitor in the Chinese,” Nelson said, and “we want to be the first back.” But by trying to highlight the appeal of space travel on all fronts, NASA risks making its rationale so amorphous that it appeals to no one. Over the years, I’ve spoken with many people who think deeply about space travel, and when I ask some of them about the whys, they admit, a little sheepishly, that there might be no compelling reason to send people into space—robots, yes, but people, maybe not. They seem hesitant to even say it aloud, as if to do so were blasphemous. But we shouldn’t be afraid to examine why that is, and even dwell on the ambivalence. And the truth is that the reasons are not so clear.
In the end, NASA doesn’t need to sell the greater public on a moon mission, only congressional lawmakers who decide budgets. And the agency has tied its future in space to entrepreneurs who don’t really need to provide a rationale to the public either. The CEOs of space companies are not beholden to American taxpayers, even though their companies benefit from taxpayer money (and they can make penis jokes to millions of people on the internet without being fired). Until recently, the Artemis effort was tangled up in a turf war between Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk: Bezos’s Blue Origin had sued NASA over the agency’s decision to pick Musk’s SpaceX to build lander technology for Artemis missions. Blue Origin had pitched its own lander too, and the company accused NASA of a “flawed” selection process. NASA said it couldn’t work with SpaceX until the conflict was resolved last week, when a judge ruled against Blue Origin’s claim. Now that the matter is settled, Nelson said that he and his leadership team will visit SpaceX’s facilities in South Texas early next year to inspect the technology that might put Americans on the moon again in 2025.
When you consider their motivations for space exploration, NASA and SpaceX are an unusual pairing. Musk, as I’ve written before, can talk forever about the urgency of turning humankind into a multiplanetary species without incurring much resistance. NASA, a government agency, can’t rely on such fringe ideas. Public officials must trot out the usual reasoning that has underpinned the American space effort since its beginnings, and present the wonder of space travel as proof that “we can meet any challenge” on Earth, as Biden said recently. American leaders have ridden this logic for 50 years. In the next 50, they might have to accept that it isn’t as compelling as they think, and that the American populace might prefer some more earthly proof first.
Marina Koren is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She covers all things space.
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