By Frank White
We choose to go to the Moon…not because it is easy, but because it is hard.President John F. Kennedy, Rice University Speech, 1962 (1)
As I write this blog, some 60 years after JFK’s Rice speech, we are looking ahead to the third attempt to launch Artemis 1, an uncrewed NASA mission to the Moon. While there had been high hopes and much enthusiasm when the flight was first scheduled, doubts and uncertainty have begun to creep into the dialogue after two scrubs.
Some 60 years ago, President Kennedy made an incredibly bold statement, given the fact that no one had ever landed a human on the Moon before.
The most important word in the speech is, in my opinion, “choose.” Without knowing what the technology would be, without being sure how much political support Apollo might have, without any kind of certainty at all, the president emphasized an intention—and that is where all great endeavors begin.
Kennedy’s intentionality carried the nation through to a landing on the Moon, even after his death. And his soaring rhetoric and rationale for Apollo inspires us today, six decades later.
Are we choosing to go to the Moon again? Yes, we are, and the public response to the first scheduled launch of Artemis demonstrates an enthusiasm for the project that was surprising to many observers, including me. However, we do not have a charismatic champion of the program like JFK. In the United States, we do not have a sense of urgency like we did in the 1960s. And we do not have the confidence in our government that we had then.
President Biden and his Administration have been remarkably supportive of NASA and Vice President Harris has delivered two remarkable speeches to the National Space Council with references to the Overview Effect (explicit and implicit). However, we must remember that President Kennedy did more than deliver stirring speeches about Apollo. He also fought for the program, which was very expensive at the time, in Congress. Somehow, his passion carried over for six years after his death, and it was his arch-rival, Richard Nixon, who made the phone call to Armstrong and Aldrin on the Moon.
It is unlikely that more scrubs will scuttle Artemis. Bill Nelson, the NASA administrator, is well aware of the power of spaceflight to change human consciousness, so his support is unlikely to waver. In his first speech to the NASA community, he referred to experiencing the Overview Effect on his own Shuttle flight. He surely knows how significant the view from the Moon will be, if Artemis succeeds.
There is one important similarity between Artemis and Apollo, which is that the technology being used is not sustainable in the long run. The powerful Saturn V, which worked well on several missions, was expensive and was not reusable. The Space Launch System, or SLS, may also be powerful, but it is significantly over budget, and cannot be used more than once.
In the 1970s, the United States did not move on from the Moon to Mars (and beyond) largely because the Nixon Administration found itself mired in scandal and stuck in Vietnam. Similar obstacles do not exist today and NASA has said clearly that the US views a Moon base as a long-term commitment, a steppingstone to Mars. Moreover, China has been just as clear in its fascination with the Moon, and I don’t think they landed a rover on the far side just to see if they could do it.
Humanity is choosing to go to the Moon in this decade, and someone will succeed at it. The question really is the same as it was 50 years ago: what happens after that?
The answer should be clear: our species must move from missions to migration; we must bring the same passion, intensity, and commitment to Large-Scale Space Migration that we once brought to the Apollo program.
There is another caveat to this paradigm shift: it must be done while keeping the benefit to the terrestrial environment in mind.
The Apollo missions contributed to the Earth’s environment by accident. As Shuttle astronaut Joe Allen told me in an interview for The Overview Effect:
With all the arguments, pro and con, for going to the Moon, no one suggested that we should do it to look at the Earth. But that may in fact be the most important reason (2).
As it turned out, when we looked back at our planet from the Moon, we saw it as a whole system against the backdrop of the cosmos. Collectively, we realized that the Earth is a natural spaceship with limited resources and “we are all in this together.” This societal epiphany gave a kickstart to the embryonic environmental movement, with the first Earth Day taking place not long after the Apollo 11 landing.
In our time, the Artemis team has found out, as President Kennedy said, that spaceflight is, indeed, hard.
And yet, the rewards are significant, as we learn so much more about who we are as a species and where we are in the universe.
If the Artemis mission eventually succeeds, it will be another milestone in humanity’s evolution into the cosmos. It could also mark the beginning of a movement from mission to migration, and a recognition that space exploration above all else benefits the Earth.
We cannot overemphasize this latter point. Conditions on Earth demand that we rise to the challenge with new ideas and new ways of doing things. We are at an inflection point and the situation is urgent.
As President and CEO of Orbital Assembly Corporation Rhonda Stevenson puts it, “There are no snow days for us; we must become a multiplanet species.”
Let’s choose…to go!
(1) “NASA, Rice University Mark 60th Anniversary of John F. Kennedy Speech,” Media Advisory, M22-120, August 23, 2022, https://www.jfklibrary.org/learn/about-jfk/historic-speeches/address-at-rice-university-on-the-nations-space-effort
(2) F. White, The Overview Effect: Space Exploration and Human Evolution, Multiverse Publishing, 2021, p.269.
(c) Copyright Frank White, 2022, All Rights Reserved.
Published with permission by Orbital Assembly