Stamping another world with a human boot print was a staggering feat of engineering and daring. 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 that has passed since has not been wasted. The construction and maintenance of a space station in low orbit made a much more distant lunar 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. Fully robotized, this first Artemis flight will perform testing and surveillance to prepare for a possible human outpost – probably not in 10 years but possibly in 25 years.
As often happens in human spaceflight, Artemis is unsightly, controversial, compromised and excessively expensive. It’s also exciting: the long-delayed next chapter in the story started by Apollo.
Fans of Artemis promote the mission as a platform for colonizing Mars. Then, to infinity and beyond. Still, it’s possible that Artemis will prove to be the limit of human space travel – but not the end of exploration.
Arguments for human space travel have become dominated by obscurity. The naive optimism of “Star Trek” overshadowed physics to imagine human ambassadors in distant galaxies. Today’s main proponents are pessimists, imagining dark lifeboats loaded with refugees from a dying Earth. Rocket billionaires predict a future so hellish that the airless desert of Mars seems to beckon.
Artemis is meant to learn the lessons necessary for human survival in space, with the subtext that those lessons will be encouraging. But it’s at least as likely that extended stays on the Moon will reveal just how unsuited humans are for long stays — or even lifetimes — beyond Earth. Organisms evolve to thrive in particular environments. The human body is perfectly tuned to a 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 undergo rapid deterioration. A study of preserved blood samples from Space Shuttle astronauts found life-threatening genetic mutations in all cases. Astronauts had spent an average of only 12 days away from Earth. Other experiments have shown that traveling beyond Earth causes bone loss, damages vision, changes fluid density around the brain, and more. Some scientists are highly skeptical of the possibility of a healthy human fetus developing in the radiation storms of space, which calls into question the idea of colonizing Mars.
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Although the travelers of Artemis will test the limits of human flesh in non-human places, robotic technology will continue to advance. Current missions hint at the miraculous future of machines in space. The James Webb Space Telescope, deployed at a distance four times farther than the moon, is only beginning to dazzle us with its infrared eye. The Mars Perseverance rover has found intriguing evidence of organic molecules – possible signs of ancient life – in rocks it processes in its onboard laboratory. Working tirelessly, the rover has time to share high-definition images of the Martian landscape.
Thus, two powerful and opposing trendlines could define the Artemis era. On the one hand, the lunar experiment could reveal other ways in which the human animal is unsuited to life outside of its natural habitat. Just as fish don’t thrive in the open and sparrows don’t live in caves, humans might turn out to be exclusively adapted to life in Earth’s ionosphere.
As we return to our human limits, robotics will follow the opposite trend. Rovers will add touch, sound and smell to their senses; they will acquire the power to move back and forth between Earth and space; their ability to guide themselves to distant worlds and react to their own discoveries will increase.
Artemis’ ultimate gift could be a heightened appreciation for the lifeboat we already occupy and the powerful creativity of human intelligence. Accepting that the Earth is our home does not necessarily mean that it is our prison.
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