NASA Is Headed Back to the Moon, But It’s Going to Have Company

On July 20, 1969, more than 600 million people around the world tuned in to watch a historic event: the first footage broadcast live from the moon, courtesy of NASA and astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong.

This week, NASA was once again talking about trips to the moon, this time over a project named Artemis. The difference between today and the space age of 50 years ago is that a growing number of countries and private actors are crowding into space. More than a dozen countries are operating more than 2,000 satellites orbiting Earth, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Today’s global competition has its roots not only in the 1969 moon mission, but in the Apollo program that started in the early 1960s. The program that at the time was incentivized by a Cold War rivalry between the former Soviet Union and America that carried into the countries’ competing ambitions to be the first to conquer space.

“Note the context in which Apollo occurred which was clearly a time of great power competition during the Cold War between us and the Soviet Union,” Robert Stevens, retired chairman, president and chief executive officer of Lockheed Martin Corporation, said this week during a panel discussion at the Atlantic Council in Washington, D.C.. “There are some features in the environment today where we see the emergence of great power competition.”

China is pushing forward with its moon exploration plans and placed a rover on the far side of the moon, exploring parts unknown to scientists. The country also pledged it will send humans on the moon by 2030. Russia, on the other hand, announced it aims to establish a colony on the moon in the next two decades.

It is in this context that NASA promised it will reach Earth’s satellite again by 2024, this time “sustainably,” according to a NASA official. That mission will be a much needed rehearsal for traveling to Mars, say scientists.

[MORE: 60 Years After NASA, a Global Space Race]

“NASA’s Artemis missions will allow scientists and engineers to examine the surface from up close,” NASA said in a statement. “This will teach us how to move safely across lunar soil, known as regolith; how to build infrastructure on top of it; and how to keep humans safe in space.”

In addition, NASA promises exploring the moon will no longer be just a man’s job: “When we go forward to the moon sustainably, we go with a very diverse, highly qualified astronaut core that includes women,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine told a U.S. Senate panel earlier this week.

Did it Really Happen?

At a time where space exploration often leads the news with projects now carried by private entities, experts attribute the success of the Apollo program to massive government investment that included collaborating with the private sector.

“It was a team sport,” Donald McMonagle, former astronaut aboard the space shuttle Discovery, said at the Atlantic Council’s discussion panel. “It could not have been accomplished without the collective efforts of those in the government, who were responsible for orchestrating this magnificent achievement, but also the plethora of industry partners that had to perform with the perfection that Neil Armstrong demanded of them.”

[MORE: India Announces Plans for Manned Space Flights]

And NASA didn’t rest on its Apollo laurels. In the 1990s, when NASA returned to the moon, scientists announced amazing discoveries took place, such as finding ice at the lunar poles and signs that the moon’s volcanic history could go as far back as 1 billion years.

Yet conspiracy theories have persisted about the Apollo program, including whether the U.S. actually did place astronauts on the moon. Experts today say it’s easy to clear the mystery, as evidence of the Apollo missions still exist.

“We see these Apollo sites, we see the lunar takeoff platform, we see where the astronauts walked, we see where they deployed the instruments, the backpacks they threw off their backs, the lunar rover vehicle,” said James Green, chief scientist at NASA, at a panel in Washington D.C. put together by the American Geophysical Union and the U.S. National Archives.

Those accomplishments can be observed on the surface of the moon through the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, a NASA robotic spacecraft that’s orbiting and mapping Earth’s natural satellite in high resolution.

More from U.S. News

60 Years After NASA, a Global Space Race

India Announces Plans for Manned Space Flights

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