LThe disorder of the world can only invite us to raise our eyes to the stars. With the launch of the Artemis-1 mission on Wednesday, November 16th, the United States is opening the door to the moon that it closed half a century ago, in 1972, with the termination of the Apollo program.
Thanks to the moves of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin in July 1969, the demonstration of American power and technology against the Soviet rival was carried out. Humiliated by the USSR during the orbit of the first artificial satellite, Sputnik, and the first human, Yuri Gagarin, the United States had taken a blinding revenge. In the middle of the Cold War, the race around the moon was a comparison of the achievements of two superpowers and two models of society.
Not so with the Artemis program. Even if China has committed itself to the space landscape, even if it has embarked on a serious lunar program whose stated aim is to get Chinese to set foot on Selenian soil by the end of the decade, it does not yet pose a dangerous competitor for the United States. Unlike Apollo, the latter now aim further. There is no question of contenting oneself this time with heroic deeds without a future.
The project aims to learn to live far from Earth, to have a permanent presence on and around our satellite, with the construction of an orbital station, the Lunar Gateway, in collaboration with the historical partners of the Americans, namely Europeans, Canadians and Japanese . And of course, as we set an even more distant horizon to prepare for what should be the spatial Holy Grail of this XXIe Century Journey to Mars.
In the short term, the return to the moon also has strong industrial justification. This lunar program is an opportunity for the United States to inject money into its space ecosystem by delegating to the private sector some of the tasks that were once NASA’s prerogative. Thus, SpaceX, Elon Musk’s company already tasked with delivering American astronauts to the International Space Station, has won the right to design and manufacture the ship expected to land on the moon in 2026. Behaving more and more like a sponsor, the American Space agency has also developed a program that allocates sizeable envelopes to companies that can ship cargo to the moon.
Finally, to all these reasons for returning to our satellite, we must add the scientific goals: During the Apollo missions, only 4% of the lunar terrain was sampled, and many questions remain about the formation and geology of the moon. Important questions if, as some space gamers fantasize, we will one day exploit this star’s resources.
Does the sum of these motives justify the enormous budget allocated to the Artemis program? In a November 2021 report, NASA’s inspector general estimated the program will cost US taxpayers $93 billion by 2025. At a time when economic recession looms and climate change requires colossal investments, the benefits of such sums to inhabited space risk becoming less apparent.