New era in space­flight: Back to the moon on way to Mars


On May 25, 1961, Pres­i­dent John Kennedy is­sued a chal­lenge to law­mak­ers, the new U.S. space agency and the Amer­i­can peo­ple.

“I be­lieve that this na­tion should com­mit it­self to achiev­ing the goal, be­fore this decade is out, of land­ing a man on the moon and re­turn­ing him safely to the Earth,” Kennedy said in a speech be­fore Con­gress.

It was an am­bi­tious goal. But in July 1969, NASA would achieve it. Apollo 11 – with Neil Arm­strong and Ed­win “Buzz” Aldrin aboard – landed on the lu­nar sur­face and made it back to Earth. This moon­shot was no one-shot deal. As­tro­nauts re­turned to the moon five times for fur­ther ex­plo­ration.

NASA an­nounced this sum­mer that it plans to head back there in the 2020s, about 50 years af­ter as­tro­nauts last vis­ited. But this time, the moon isn’t con­sid­ered a des­ti­na­tion. It’s a pit stop on the way to the next space goal: send­ing hu­mans to Mars. To un­der­stand this new era of hu­man space­flight, it’s im­por­tant to look back at what Kennedy set in mo­tion 57 years ago.

When Kennedy made his plea to Con­gress, the United States had just launched its first manned space­craft. Alan Shep­ard made a 15-minute sub­or­bital flight, trav­el­ing 115 miles up and then re­turn­ing to Earth. The Soviet Union had sent the first man into space sev­eral weeks ear­lier. Not only had Yuri Ga­garin’s flight lasted longer – 108 min­utes – but he also com­pleted a sin­gle or­bit of the Earth. The United States was em­bar­rassed. It didn’t want the Sovi­ets – the only other world su­per­power at the time – to get ahead in space ex­plo­ration.

“There was this bat­tle for hearts and minds,” says Teasel Muir-Har­mony, space his­tory cu­ra­tor at the Smith­so­nian Na­tional Air & Space Mu­seum. “Beat­ing the Sovi­ets in space was im­por­tant for the United States’ place in the world.”

The pres­i­dent had talked with NASA sci­en­tists about which achieve­ment was within reach for the United States and per­haps fur­ther away for the Sovi­ets.

“The U.S. at the time was bet­ter at land­ings,” Muir-Har­mony said. “The Soviet Union at the time was hav­ing trou­ble with land­ings.”

So they chose land­ing on the moon, which is on aver­age 240,000 miles away. (The dis­tance changes be­cause its or­bit is not a cir­cle.) At that point, Ga­garin had trav­eled the far­thest from Earth – 203 miles. Muir-Har­mony said Kennedy pur­posely chose not to aim just one step ahead of the Sovi­ets.

“If we pro­pose this pro­gram that’s re­ally bold ... they’d have to in­vest in new tech­nolo­gies,” Muir-Har­mony said. Mem­bers of Con­gress would de­bate spend­ing nearly $1.7 bil­lion

on the space pro­gram for the next year.

That money and bil­lions more ap­proved in the 1960s paid not only for the Apollo mis­sions but also rock­ets and other tech­nol­ogy that NASA has used in the decades since then. That, too, was part of Kennedy’s pitch to Con­gress.

“This gives prom­ise of some day pro­vid­ing a means for even more ex­cit­ing and am­bi­tious ex­plo­ration of space, per­haps beyond the moon, per­haps to the very end of the so­lar sys­tem it­self,” he said.

NASA has sent space­craft to ex­plore the far reaches of our so­lar

sys­tem and beyond, but none has in­cluded hu­mans. In­stead, as­tro­nauts have been study­ing the ef­fects of liv­ing and work­ing in space by or­bit­ing Earth, first on Sky­lab and since 2000 on the In­ter­na­tional Space Sta­tion (ISS).

The mis­sions have be­come more col­lab­o­ra­tive than com­pet­i­tive. NASA has four in­ter­na­tional part­ners: space agen­cies in Rus­sia, Canada, Ja­pan and Europe.

More than 100 as­tro­nauts and cos­mo­nauts have stayed on the ISS for long-term as­sign­ments. And pri­vate com­pa­nies have part­nered with NASA to take sup­plies to the sta­tion. Two com­pa­nies, Boe­ing and SpaceX, are set to next year be­come the first pri­vate com­pa­nies to ferry as­tro­nauts to the ISS.

NASA aims to work with th­ese part­ners and oth­ers as it moves to­ward hu­man mis­sions to Mars.

The agency’s leader, Jim Bri­den­s­tine, ex­plained in Septem­ber that the plan to get to Mars in­volves re­turn­ing to the moon with lan­ders, rovers, ro­bots and hu­mans.

“The glory of the moon is that’s it’s only a three-day jour­ney home,” Bri­den­s­tine told mem­bers of Con­gress. “So we can prove all of the tech­nolo­gies, we can re­duce all of the risks.”

And in the event of an emer­gency, NASA can get as­tro­nauts home quickly, he said. The jour­ney from Mars, which is on aver­age 140 mil­lion miles from Earth, would take about eight months.

Bri­den­s­tine an­nounced in Octo-

ber that NASA is plan­ning to send sci­en­tific equip­ment to the moon in 2019 or 2020.

A hu­man trip to or­bit the moon would launch in 2023. An or­bit­ing “gate­way,” or a lu­nar space sta­tion, would fol­low. The gate­way would al­low hu­mans and equip­ment to get to the moon’s sur­face. Even­tu­ally it would serve as a launch­pad to Mars.

Th­ese moon mis­sions will be sim­i­lar to Apollo in that the United States wants to prove its lead­er­ship in space ex­plo­ration. But Muir-Har­mony pointed out an im­por­tant dif­fer­ence.

“We want to ex­pand our knowl­edge of the uni­verse. We want to ad­vance science,” she said. “There’s not an end goal.”


As­tro­naut Su­nita “Suni” Wil­liams trains April 3 in a mock-up of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon space­craft in Hawthorne, Cal­i­for­nia. SpaceX and Boe­ing are pri­vate com­pa­nies that have part­nered with NASA to ferry as­tro­nauts to the In­ter­na­tional Space Sta­tion be­gin­ning next year.

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