A Look at Human Space Travel

10 December 2020 2220 view(s) 4 min read
A Look at Human Space Travel

Lunar panorama taken during Apollo 17


Astronaut Buzz Aldrin saluting the US flag on the surface of the moonIt seems only fitting that the news of future missions to the Moon and the Artemis crew's announcement coincides with the anniversary of the last Moon landing, Apollo 17 which launched on December 7, 1972, and landed on the Moon 4 days later on December 11. It has been nearly 50 years since travel outside of low-Earth orbit has seemed possible, but now, with the impending Artemis Deep Space Outpost, and NASA's announcement of the Artemis crew, it could become a reality once more. As the future of space travel looms ahead of us, we must recognize how far we have come since the start of the "Space Race" and how groundbreaking it is to have traveled to the Moon at all.

The Apollo program was the third US human spaceflight program carried out by NASA. The Apollo Program enabled the first humans to reach the Moon in 1969 with Apollo 11. During President Eisenhower's administration, the Apollo program was conceptualized as a three-person space mission to follow the one-person Mercury project, which sent the first Americans into space, and the two-person Gemini project, which expanded human spaceflight capabilities. Apollo was later dedicated to President Kennedy and his national goal for the 1960s, landing a man on the Moon and returning safely to Earth.

Astronaut Schmitt with American flag during Apollo 17Kennedy's goal was accomplished with the Apollo 11 mission. On July 20, 1969, when astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong and Aldrin landed their Apollo Lunar Module (LM) and made humankind's first steps onto the Moon, while Michael Collins remained in the command and service module (CSM) while in lunar orbit. All three astronauts safely landed back on Earth a short four days later. Five of the six following Apollo missions successfully landed astronauts on the Moon, with the last being Apollo 17. In these six spaceflights, over three years, twelve people walked on the Moon.

Apollo 17 was the last human spaceflight beyond low-Earth orbit, with the LM making contact with the lunar surface on December 11, 1972. The astronauts Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt spent an unprecedented three days on the lunar surface, while Ronald Evans orbited in the CSM. The mission broke several crewed spaceflight records: the longest Moon landing, longest total extravehicular activities, largest lunar sample, which was over 110kg (243lbs), the longest time in lunar orbit, and, at 75, most lunar orbits.

The Apollo program set an astounding amount of human spaceflight milestones. Apollo 8 succeeding in being the first crewed spacecraft to orbit another celestial body. Apollo 11 accomplished an even larger task of being the first crewed spacecraft to land humans on another celestial body and safely return them. As of now, the Apollo program is the only program to send humans beyond low-Earth orbit. The Apollo program returned 382 kg (842lbs) of lunar rocks and soil to Earth, which significantly contributed to understanding the Moon's geological history and composition. The Apollo program also spurred advancements in several areas of technology, incidental to rocketry and human spaceflight, including avionics, telecommunications, and computers.

NASA image with Artemis logo saying humanity's return to the moon with moon and marsNow, we look toward the future with NASA's newly-announced "Artemis Team" who will pave the way for the next human missions to both orbit and land on the Moon in nearly 50 years. The team includes 18 men and women, although specific mission assignments have yet to be made. NASA's new goal is returning humans to the Moon's surface by 2024. The Artemis program, aptly named after Apollo's twin sister, is slated to begin sending robotic missions to the Moon and beyond low-Earth orbit as early as 2021, followed by the Artemis II crew, launching into lunar orbit in 2023. NASA expects to be selecting the members of the Artemis II crew potentially as soon as 2021. The crew for Artemis III, which will be the first to land on the Moon, will be chosen later. Both missions would launch with four astronauts, with two becoming the next astronauts to walk on the Moon on Artemis III.

This announcement from NASA gives us so much to look forward to and look back upon. 60 years ago, it seemed an impossible task to send someone to the Moon and bring them back. For the last 50, we've known it was possible but have had no ability to accomplish those incredible goals. But this announcement proves that our desire to reach beyond ourselves once more has not gone away with time but has returned with vigor.