The following editorial originally appeared in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:
NASA’s Artemis program is edging toward a return to the moon — this time to stay — with its successful launch last week of an uncrewed rocket. Some Americans looking at the Earth-bound problems all around us might reasonably ask: Why? The answer is not just about the scientific discovery that a permanent presence on the moon promises but also the much-needed sense of national purpose it could recapture.
Humanity’s first climb to the moon began, rhetorically at least, in September 1962, when President John F. Kennedy defined the purpose of the endeavor: “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” Just seven years later, Neil Armstrong became the first human to set foot on an extraterrestrial surface.
The motivation for that astounding feat was, first and foremost, geopolitical. Beating the Soviet Union to the moon was another front in the Cold War, one that united Americans. The significant scientific discovery and spinoff technology that the moon missions spurred — including computer-miniaturization capabilities that ultimately made possible the laptop or cellphone on which you may be reading this — were almost incidental.
There’s no Cold War driving things this time, which necessitates a little more explanation as to why America is returning to what it is, after all, a large cold rock in space.
First, there is the science and the basic human drive for exploration — both worthy ends in themselves. The ultimate goal, with private companies providing heavy input, is to establish a permanent moon base as a jumping-off point for exploration of Mars and beyond.
Moon rocks and soil samples collected during the Apollo missions added immensely to scientists’ understanding of the origins of the moon, Earth and the rest of the solar system. Modern testing methods, more advanced than what was available half a century ago, could add to that understanding, especially if astronauts are able to conduct experiments on the moon itself while living there.
That possibility has grown with the discovery a few years ago that water is trapped within the moon’s seemingly barren surface. If it can be extracted and processed, it could provide not only drinking water for astronauts, but breathable air and even hydrogen rocket fuel.
Although there is no more Soviet Union to race with, geopolitical factors remain. China is planning to build and staff a lunar base in the coming decades. Allowing a global adversary that kind of scientific and strategic foothold — in orbit right above us — would be not just disheartening but potentially dangerous.
Finally, there is the unifying effect that a return to the moon could have on a deeply divided America. That cold rock in space brought Americans together once before. We need that kind of shared mission again.