Op-ed | What will be different next time we go to the moon
This op-ed originally appeared in the July 16, 2019 special Apollo 11 at 50 issue of SpaceNews magazine.
America is returning to the moon. In May, NASA announced the Artemis program, which sets an aggressive timeline for placing astronauts on the lunar surface by 2024. Half a century after Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin took their first “small steps,” we’re going back with all the wonders of 21st century technology, but this time, things will be different.
Thinking back to July 1969 when I was a teenager in Dayton, Ohio, I recall a summer of inspiration. Apollo 11 expressed clearly that when people come together to work on a common goal, it is not only achievable—it is transformational.
In watching the fuzzy, black and white images on the TV screen in my parent’s living room, it was easy to see myself reflected in the adventure. Growing up, the astronauts that traveled to space looked like me, and the people who powered and guided those missions looked like my dad and so many other fathers in my neighborhood. That is, the first astronauts on the moon and many of the people who sent them there were Caucasian and male.
With that, not everyone saw themselves reflected in space exploration the way I did. And that is where the new Artemis program can do something Apollo did not.
NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine has already committed that an American woman will be among the Artemis astronauts. That commitment to diversity is more than overdue, and it is one example of how this moon program can be an even greater source of inspiration and collaboration than Apollo. But there is another reason to insist on inclusivity in this modern moon program. Even with all of today’s breakthrough technology, this time going to the moon will be a group marathon, and not the singular sprint of generations before.
We’re already seeing the first steps of this methodical mindset coming together. The Lunar Gateway, along with all of the proposed step-by-step support missions and technology demonstrations are defining the first miles of this marathon. This lunar trek will also have a much wider array of domestic, international, government and commercial providers that can make every stride along the way possible. While some may question and deservedly challenge having such a distributed network of contributors, the dividends of job creation, technology transfer, expanded entrepreneurship, international partnerships, shared research and development, and more create wider opportunity than any other effort on the planet.
Fifty years ago, there were two nations competing in space for the first landing on the moon. While doing that, both countries were pioneering technologies to give themselves whatever strategic and competitive advantages they could.
Fifty years later there are 75 nations with spacecraft in continual operations above us that connect every continent, infrastructure and piece of our national and international security, and economy.
You don’t have to be a military tactician to know that higher ground always gives greater opportunity.
For as much as the 50th anniversary of Apollo celebrations will focus on the men that went to space, every member of those legendary crews would tell you, no one reaches space alone. Apollo demanded thousands of minds, millions of hours of work, and billions of dollars in investment. Artemis will require even more of the same, but it will distribute those burdens and opportunities among a far larger and more capable pool of talent than anything Apollo ever possessed or imagined.
When you structure complex endeavors in this way, it creates broad ownership and deeper commitment to the larger vision and mission. Success in space requires all of the available and assembled talents we can muster and creates a broader and diverse group of full-fledged shareholders. When those shareholders see themselves reflected in a program like Artemis, ownership takes hold with stronger, deeper and more endurable roots.
Those roots not only strengthen our reach for exploration “out there,” but nourish life and create impact here on Earth where the rewards and return on investments are needed most. Today, any visit to our grocery stores or doctors’ offices; or use of our computers and communications devices, was touched by Apollo.
We should never forget that the rewarding dividend of 50 years ago was cut by two competing giants. Just imagine what a wider and more collaborative effort across countries and companies as vested partners can yield.
There is no doubt that Apollo was an unparalleled success, but that urgent sprint to the moon did not nurture the intellectual and technical roots needed to convert lunar landings into a sustainable presence. Today’s more multidimensional effort—with more diverse people, providers, companies, countries and approaches—can create a real, enduring human presence beyond Earth while improving lives back on it.
We proved that with Apollo and continue to demonstrate it today on the International Space Station. In the coming years, we will showcase those benefits again when we go back to the moon while pursuing our ultimate objective – putting humans on Mars and beyond.
Neil and Buzz’s small steps and giant leaps of 50 years ago certainly opened the door for humanity beyond Earth, but it is Artemis that will afford us an even more rewarding journey for generations to come.
Tom Zelibor is chief executive officer of the Space Foundation in Colorado Springs, Colorado.