The last Apollo astronauts lifted away from the moon after a 12-day campout in 1972. They couldn’t survive on the lunar surface long, so there had been little for them to do.
Once they had collected rocks, driven a car, bounded like bunnies and smacked a golf ball, Nasa was left with a very exclusive ride to nowhere.
Stamping another world with a human boot print was a staggering feat of engineering and audacity. But a sense of unfinished business hung over the astronauts’ departure: We’ll be back, Nasa seemed to say, once we figure out how to linger, and why.
The half-century since has not been wasted. Building and maintaining a space station in low orbit has made a far more distant moon station plausible. And now comes the recent launch of the Artemis mission: NASA’s Step 1 in humanity’s return to the moon.
Huge advances in computing and artificial intelligence have brought the operation of a permanent lunar base within reach. Entirely robotic, this first Artemis flight will perform tests and surveillance to prepare for an eventual human outpost — probably not in 10 years, but perhaps within 25.
As often happens in the realm of human space flight, Artemis is ungainly, controversial, compromised and excessively expensive. It is also exciting: the long-delayed next chapter of the story begun by Apollo.
Fans of Artemis promote the mission as a platform for colonising Mars. Then, to infinity and beyond. Yet it’s possible Artemis might prove to be the limit of human space travel — though not the end of exploration.
The case for human space travel has become dominated by darkness. The naive optimism of “Star Trek” glossed over physics to imagine human ambassadors to faraway galaxies.
Human survival in space
Artemis is intended to learn the lessons necessary for human survival in space, with the subtext that those lessons will be encouraging. But it is at least as likely that extended stays on the moon will reveal just how unsuited humans are for long sojourns — or even lifetimes — beyond Earth.
Organisms evolve to thrive in particular environments. The human body is exquisitely tuned to one G of gravity and a magnetic field, neither of which is present on the moon or Mars.
Even in the relatively friendly realm of low orbit, human bodies suffer rapid deterioration. One study of preserved blood samples from space shuttle astronauts found potentially deadly gene mutations in every case. The astronauts had spent an average of just 12 days away from Earth.
Other experiments have shown that travelling beyond Earth causes bone loss, damages vision, alters fluid density around the brain and so on.
Though Artemis voyagers will test the limits of human flesh in non-human places, robotic technology will continue to advance.
Current missions give a glimmer of the miraculous future of machines in space. The James Webb Space Telescope, deployed at a distance four times more remote than the moon, has only begun to dazzle us with its infrared eye.
The Mars rover Perseverance has found intriguing evidence of organic molecules — possible signs of long-ago life — in the rocks it processes through its on-board laboratory. Working tirelessly, the rover has time to share high-definition images of the Martian landscape.
Thus, two powerful, opposing trend lines might define the Artemis era. On one hand, the lunar experiment might reveal additional ways in which the humans are unsuited to life outside its natural habitat.
Just as fish do not thrive in open air and sparrows don’t dwell in caves, humans could prove to be exclusively adapted to life within Earth’s ionosphere.
While we are finding our human limits, robotics will follow the opposite trend. Rovers will add touch and sound and scent to their senses; they will gain the power to come and go between Earth and space; their ability to guide themselves over distant worlds and react to their own discoveries will increase.
Artemis’s ultimate gift might be a heightened appreciation of the lifeboat we already occupy, and of the mighty creativity of human intelligence. To accept that Earth is our home need not mean that it is our prison.
David James Von Drehle is a noted author and journalist.
Source: Washington Post