Op-ed | Artemis 2026: Celebrating America’s 250th with the next humans on the moon
On July 4, 2026, the United States will celebrate the 250th anniversary of its independence. America should commemorate this historical milestone in 2026 by landing humans on the moon for the first time since 1972.
Sending humanity back to the moon in 2026 is not only technically feasible, but it also fits squarely in the projected timeline for NASA’s already existing plan to return astronauts to the lunar surface — the Artemis program.
NASA, in 2018, proposed a crewed launch to the moon by 2028. In early 2019, then-Vice President Mike Pence challenged the agency to accelerate the mission by launching “the first woman and the next man” to the lunar surface by 2024. Based on statements from President Biden, and recently confirmed NASA Administrator Bill Nelson, the current administration is tentatively embracing Artemis and the 2024 timeline, while also enhancing the nod to America’s diversity with the goal now to send “the first woman and the first person of color” to the lunar surface in 2024.
With all due credit to both the Trump and Biden administrations for their enthusiasm to return to the moon, an already ambitious goal of launching in 2024 has been made even less practical by pandemic-induced personnel constraints at NASA and technical delays with the Space Launch System (SLS), which will propel the crew and their life support systems up to Earth’s orbit and beyond to the moon. Delays related to NASA’s controversial decision to select SpaceX as the single vendor for the Human Landing System (HLS) could also impact the timeline (or maybe it won’t — bravo, SpaceX). In addition to the technical and logistical obstacles of sending astronauts to the moon in 2024, it does not take much mental effort to imagine the unnecessary politicization of a monumental NASA mission that occurs in the midst of a presidential election year.
Given the recent successful green run test of the SLS engines, after a long series of setbacks, launching the first crewed Artemis mission (Artemis 3) in 2025 is likely possible. And perhaps we should just focus on returning to the moon as soon as possible instead of attempting to establish concrete timelines for complex space missions that involve so many variables and unknowns.
But what better way to celebrate 250 years of American independence than by setting 2026 as the year that the United States finally returns humanity to the moon? Not only would a return to the moon in America’s 250th year of independence be an accomplishment that all Americans could take pride in together, launching in 2026 would also provide ample time to sort out any remaining technical issues and develop a comprehensive plan for long-term lunar exploration and construction.
Thomas Jefferson, the primary author of the Declaration of Independence and a noted scientist of his time, would no doubt be impressed with such an achievement from a nation that he helped to found. Considering his anti-Federalist attitudes, however, it could also be argued that Jefferson would be suspicious of the federal government involving itself in space exploration. But, despite his justified concerns regarding federal largesse, Jefferson was also the president who sent Meriwether Lewis and William Clark on their expedition in 1804 to explore the Western frontier.
There is obviously a danger in drawing parallels between travels to outer space and Western expeditions that ultimately led to the brutal conquest of peoples and lands from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean. Although America has erred in its past growth, it is not doomed to repeat those errors in the future. With nearly 8 billion humans already inhabiting all corners of this planet and putting a heavy strain on its resources, outer space is the frontier of our time. Returning to the moon, and establishing a sustainable presence there, is humanity’s next step in exploring that frontier, sharing the benefits of its resources, and lessening the burden on our home planet.
Since the time of Apollo, some have questioned the wisdom of spending billions of taxpayer funds to expand humanity’s reach into outer space when there are plenty of problems that require attention here on Earth.
While it cannot be denied that we do face numerous challenges on this planet, space skepticism ignores not only the benefits that humankind has already derived from existing space-related technologies — such as GPS and advances in robotics and medicine, but also the vast potential to tap the resources available in outer space.
Helium 3 harvested from the moon could one day power fusion reactors on Earth.
The lunar surface could play host to space solar power stations that beam carbon-free and nearly limitless power back to the Earth.
In addition, the knowledge gained from exploring the lunar surface can be applied to future missions to explore resource-rich asteroids and the surface of Mars.
Space exploration is looking to be one of few policy areas with a measure of bipartisanship and continuity between administrations. And President Biden’s proposal to increase funding for the Artemis mission makes it clear that going back to the moon remains a priority for America. This is all to the good.
But returning to the moon in 2024 looks out of reach without making sacrifices in the short term that could impede our ability to make the most of our investment in Artemis in the long term. Therefore, President Biden and Congress should commit to setting 2026 as the year that the United States returns humanity to the moon. I myself can think of no better opportunity to celebrate America’s semiquincentennial, and inspire the nation and the world, than by sending humans back to the lunar surface in 2026 and laying the first foundations for humanity’s lasting presence beyond our planet.
Tyler Bender is a research associate with Beyond Earth Institute.