The Burdens and the Hopes

Will Artemis I be the start of our Next Giant Leap – or our One Last Shot?

Artemis I arrives at Launch Complex 39B in the dawn on August 17. Credit: NASA/Joel Kowsky

It’s an image that immediately brings to mind the golden era of human spaceflight: an enormous rocket at rest in the purple-pink light of dawn at Kennedy Space Center, ready to blast off to destinations once thought beyond humanity’s grasp. But this rocket isn’t the mighty Saturn V standing vigil in the twilight or under the watchful gaze of searchlight beams on hot July nights in 1969 as it waits to send the three Apollo 11 astronauts on their way to the Moon. Instead, it’s the uninspiringly named Space Launch System, a brawny orange rocket carrying the new Orion crew vehicle and a series of instruments (including a plush astronaut Snoopy as a zero-gravity indicator) on a crucial test flight to lunar orbit and back again to Earth.

If all goes well on this first mission of the Artemis Program, it’ll be the first step toward what NASA officials and others occasionally call our Next Giant Leap: sending astronauts back to the Moon by 2025 at the earliest, and then on to Mars and points beyond. It’s entirely possible that Artemis I will help rekindle our exhausted imaginations, raise our shared horizons, and spark a modest renaissance in space exploration that’ll eventually lead to astronauts hiking on the surface of Mars. I personally hope that’s the case, and about two-thirds of the time that’s what I think will happen – at least to some small and uncertain degree.

At the same time, though, it’s hard not to sense an aura of unease and foreboding that occasionally lingers over Artemis I. It’s almost as if the mission represents one last shot at a better future, not humanity’s next giant leap into the cosmos – an attempt to prove to the world and, most of all, to ourselves that we can keep the light of our shared hopes and common ambitions burning. Every now and again, the mission feels more like an elegy for our nation’s once-soaring aspirations and determination to achieve the seemingly impossible than a powerful measure of our talents and energies. This launch takes place in a time of palpable national and even global pessimism, when far too many of us seem to have lost our grip on reality altogether and many more harbor serious, corrosive doubts about the future of the country, the planet, and indeed humanity at large.

It’s a far cry from the nervous anticipation that accompanied the launch of Apollo 11 in July 1969, an electric mood eloquently captured early on in Todd Douglas Miller’s stark but euphoric 2019 documentary Apollo 11. If anything, the times were even more grim then than they are now: a raging war in Vietnam, riots in major cities across the country, and the ever-present specter of nuclear war with the Soviet Union only begin to scratch the surface. Nor did matters improve much over the next several years, with energy crises, inflation, and Watergate all hitting in the five years that followed Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the moon. Even if it just offered most Americans a breather from the seemingly constant upheaval and frequent bad news of the late 1960s, Apollo embodied a sense of national optimism and faith in the future that’s diminished and faded in the intervening decades.

Artemis doesn’t carry with it the same colossal burdens and hopes as Apollo, at least not in as obvious or conscious a way. Amidst our present national miasma, however, Artemis has been burdened with an unappreciated significance that few realize but most of us intuitively understand at some level: do we still have the sort of ambition that drove Apollo, and the confidence in ourselves necessary to carry it out? It’s hard to give a positive or even minimally certain answer to that question right now, especially with everything that could possibly (or even probably) go wrong for America and the world over the next several years. At times it feels like we’ve entered our national twilight, a long, drawn-out decline into collective senescence – or worse, a dramatic collapse into national senility and madness.

It’s up to Artemis to help prove this widely-held defeatism wrong. That’s the heavy burden that rests on the shoulders Apollo’s twin sister today, one largely unencumbered by the hopes we invested in its predecessor. Instead, Artemis bears an outsized share of the responsibility of keeping our heads above water as we make our way through the rest of this decade. Of course, it won’t have to carry that particular weight alone: the Mars rover Perseverance and the James Webb Space Telescope have already given us steady drips of optimism in recent months and years. If successful, though, Artemis has the potential to do that on a much grander scale in sending astronauts further than anyone has ever gone before and, in time, returning them to the lunar surface.

Again, most of the time I’m personally hopeful that Artemis can help inoculate us against despair and revive our atrophied sense of national possibility. There’s no denying the considerable enthusiasm for and interest in Artemis I that exists among ordinary people around the world, much as it does for the Webb Space Telescope and the stunning images of the heavens it’s beamed down since July. More robotic missions are on the way as well, including one later this decade that will pick up samples collected by Perseverance on Mars and return them back to Earth. Even the legacy of Apollo remains strong, as evidenced by the crowds that showed up in the sweltering summer heat in July 2019 to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the first Moon landing. It’s not as if there aren’t good, solid grounds for optimism, at least when it comes to America’s space exploration program.

Still, it’s hard to shake the disquieting sense that Artemis offers us a reminder of passed ambitions more than anything else. Like the ruins of the Colosseum in Rome or the Great Sphinx of Giza or the carcasses of aqueducts and amphitheaters that litter the Mediterranean world, Artemis recalls of the grandeur and passions of an age still remembered but long since passed. And like those ancient wonders of art and architecture, it invites us to contemplate the impermanence of even the most spectacular and epochal of our achievements – ones that pushed ourselves to the limits of our intellect, endurance, and skills.

Will Artemis be our next giant leap into the heavens or our one last attempt to reach for the stars before we fall off a precipice of our own making? Does it mark the beginning of a new era or the end of an old one, a new dawn or a darkening national twilight? For my own part, I remain fundamentally optimistic about both Artemis and America. But I also know that it’s far too soon to know the answers to these questions, and there’s only one thing we can really do to find out: turn the page and see what happens next.