the dream of space conquest and its price

Lhe disorders of the world can only invite us to raise our eyes to the stars. With the takeoff of the Artemis-1 mission, Wednesday, November 16, the United States reopens the door to the Moon that they had closed half a century ago, in 1972, by ending the Apollo program.

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Thanks to the steps of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin in July 1969, the demonstration of American power and technology against the Soviet rival was made. Humiliated by the USSR during the orbiting of the first artificial satellite, Sputnik, and the first human, Yuri Gagarin, the United States had taken a dazzling revenge. In the midst of the Cold War, the race for the Moon was then a way of comparing the performance of two superpowers and two models of society.

Not so with the Artemis program. Even if China has imposed itself on the space landscape, even if it has set up a serious lunar program whose stated ambition is to send Chinese people to set foot on Selenian soil by the end of the decade, it does not does not yet constitute a dangerous competitor for the United States. Contrary to what happened with Apollo, the latter are now aiming further. No question this time of being satisfied with exploits without a future.

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Industrial reasons

The project is to learn to live far from Earth, to have a permanent presence on our satellite and around it with the construction of an orbital station, the Lunar Gateway, in cooperation with the historical partners of the Americans, namely Europeans, Canadians and Japanese. And of course, if we set an even more distant horizon, to prepare for what should be the spatial Holy Grail of this XXIe century, the journey to Mars.

In the shorter term, the return to the Moon is also very much justified by industrial reasons. This lunar program is an opportunity for the United States to inject money into its space ecosystem, by delegating to the private sector some of the tasks that were once the prerogative of NASA. This is how SpaceX, Elon Musk’s company, which has already been entrusted with the delivery of American astronauts to the International Space Station, has won the right to design and manufacture the vessel that will land on the Moon, probably in 2026. The American space agency behaves more and more like a sponsor, and it has also developed a program which allocates substantial envelopes to companies capable of transporting cargo to the Moon.

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To all these reasons for returning to our satellite, we must finally add the scientific objectives: only 4% of lunar terrain was sampled during the Apollo missions, and many questions still arise about the formation and geology of the Moon. Important questions if, as some space players fantasize, we will one day exploit the resources of this star.

Does the sum of these motivations justify the enormous budget allocated to the Artemis program? In a November 2021 report, NASA’s Inspector General estimated that by 2025 the program will have cost US taxpayers $93 billion. At a time when an economic recession threatens and when climate change imposes colossal investments, the usefulness of spending such sums in inhabited space risks becoming less obvious.

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