As of last year, July 20th is no longer just the national observance of National Moon Day: the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution on “(i)nternational cooperation in the peaceful uses of outer space” in which it designated today as International Moon Day! The day commemorates the anniversary of the very first moon landing, July 20, 1969. For the United States, our making it to the moon has been a point of pride since Neil Armstrong stepped out of the lunar lander; the UN resolution recognizes the international importance of those first footprints on the moon and marks the day to “also consider the achievements of all States in the exploration of the Moon and raise public awareness of sustainable Moon exploration and utilization.” And that last part isn’t just a far-off dream anymore:
Y’all, we’re going back to the moon! Like, within this decade! And it is an international affair with NASA collaborating with the European Space Agency, the Canadian Space Agency, and the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency. Fittingly, the program that is going to take humans back to the moon is named Artemis, the twin sister of Apollo and goddess of the moon.
Left photo by Dimitris Vetsikas, right photo by Daniel Dzejak two photos, side by side. The left photo is of a statue of Artemis, with a hunting dog by her side and a quiver of arrows on her back. The photo on the right is of the Space Launch System rocket—the propulsion system used by upcoming Artemis missions; it stands upright, supported by a launch tower under an overcast sky.
After the space shuttle program was retired, I must admit, I’d given up on hopes of seeing lunar missions in my lifetime but, y’all, it is already in progress! In fact, CAPSTONE (Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology and Navigation Experiment) was launched last month and is en route to the moon, with a primary mission of testing the effectiveness of a near rectilinear halo orbit (NRHO), an orbit that relies on the moon’s gravity to slingshot a spacecraft or satellite, forming a very long elliptical shape. The NRHO will be north to south, with the closest part of the orbit occurring above the northern pole and the furthest above the southern pole. The idea being tested by CAPSTONE is that the NRHO is sustainable for an orbiting station, both in terms of fuel efficiency and maintaining communication with ground control on Earth throughout an entire orbit, which is not possible with the previously used orbits around the moon.
Photo from WikiImages ID: Photo titled Earthrise, showing the Earth rising over the moon’s horizon taken from lunar orbit by William Anders on December 24th, 1968 during the Apollo 8 mission.
Following closely on CAPSTONE’s heels, will be the launch of Artemis 1. NASA is currently looking at a launch window between August 23rd and September 6th of this year. That’s only a little over a month away! Artemis 1 will be the proving ground for the Space Launch System (SLS), the first rocket designed for human space travel beyond low-Earth orbit since the Saturn V that carried the Apollo astronauts to the moon. Barring delays that often come with missions to space, this late-summer/early-fall, the integrated SLS and Orion spacecraft, this time uncrewed, will be the test for a crewed mission, Artemis 2, sometime in 2024. These first flights are practice runs for Artemis 3—perhaps optimistically planned for 2025-26—which will put people on the moon once again; NASA has committed itself to making sure that women and people of color are represented among the ranks of astronauts who have felt moon dust beneath their boots.
Photo from WikiImages ID: An astronaut in their EVA suit, sitting in the right seat of a lunar rover.
The first three Artemis missions and beyond are all geared toward establishing a station in lunar orbit and habitat on the moon itself. The station, called Gateway, will function as a habitat, science station, and a transfer point for people and cargo from a docking spacecraft and the lunar base camp. Gateway and Artemis base camp will be the staging ground for eventually sending humans to Mars.
ID: .gif of an astronaut in an EVA suit bouncing on the moon’s surface, moving from center to off-screen with text that reads, “LOL BYE.”
It feels poignant that we are returning to lunar exploration during the year that will mark fifty years since the end of the Apollo program—when the crew of Apollo 17 splashed down to earth on December 19, 1972. So, today, on this very first International Moon Day, we celebrate our first steps on another world and look skyward with intent to walk on that world again, very soon.
“If you want to write a song about the human race, write a song about the moon.” – Paul Simon