Eleven years ago, during Barack Obama’s second year in the White House, NASA retired the 30-year-old space shuttle program. The first shuttle, Columbia, lifted off on 12 April 1981. The last shuttle, Atlantis, landed in Florida on 21 July 2011.
Richard Nixon had announced development of a reusable space vehicle in January 1972, more than two years after the United States put the first men on the moon on 20 July 1969. (NASA streamed that event live to an estimated 650 million people.)
On 21 July 1969, Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin remained on the moon’s surface for 21 hours, 36 minutes. Upon their departure, two items remained behind: an American flag and “a patch honoring the fallen Apollo 1 crew.”
From competition to global cooperation
For the US, the manned space program began on 05 May 1961, when astronaut Alan Shepard spent 15 minutes in a suborbital flight, the first of Project Mercury.
But for the world, it began on 12 April 1961, when Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin flew for 108 minutes in an orbital flight aboard Vostok 1. That was 20 years before Columbia and less than a month before Shepard.
But we also began a decades-long global collaboration between 15 nations and five space agencies — NASA (United States), Roscosmos (Russia), JAXA (Japan), ESA (Europe), and CSA (Canada) — known as the International Space Station (ISS).
The space station is approximately the size of a football field: a 460-ton, permanently crewed platform orbiting 250 miles above Earth. It is about four times as large as the Russian space station Mir and five times as large as the U.S. Skylab.
In 2004, George W. Bush announced that the space shuttle program would end in 2010. Bush also announced a new Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV, purpose to carry astronauts to other worlds) with a manned mission (by 2014) and a return to the moon (by 2020).
The space shuttle program, the backbone of American crewed spaceflight, flew 135 missions. After retiring the program in 2011, NASA sent US astronauts to the ISS via Russian Soyuz spacecraft, which launches from Kazakhstan.
Congress did not provide NASA the funding to complete CEV (renamed Orion) per Bush’s 2004 pronouncement. Instead of publicly-owned space vehicles, NASA would work with private companies to develop an Uber-like service for US astronauts.
In November 2020, the SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule began shuttling US astronauts from Florida to the ISS.
Last week, NASA and Roscosmos announced a new agreement, “allowing Russian cosmonauts to fly on US-made spacecraft in exchange for American astronauts being able to ride on Russia’s Soyuz.” The first flights under the new agreement are set for September 2022.
On 20 July 2022, the anniversary of that first moon walk, NASA announced potential launch dates for Artemis I and our journey to return to the moon: August 29, September 2 or September 5.
The uncrewed Artemis I will launch on a mission that goes beyond the moon and returns to Earth. This mission will kick off NASA’s Artemis program, which aims to return humans to the moon and land the first woman and first person of color on the lunar surface by 2025.
NASA is partnering with private corporations and international partners to “establish a sustainable presence on the Moon to prepare for missions to Mars.”
Artemis is the twin sister of Apollo and goddess of the Moon in Greek mythology. Now, she personifies our path to the Moon as the name of NASA’s efforts to return astronauts and a new wave of science payloads and technology demonstrations to the lunar surface. When they land, American astronauts will step foot where no human has ever been before: the Moon’s South Pole.
NASA’s fiscal 2022 budget is $24 billion.
In comparison, the formal defense budget is $778 billion. For fiscal 2023, the Biden Administration has requested $301 billion for the Department of Veterans Affairs. In 2019, The Nation totaled all defense-related budgets: $1.2542 trillion.