Opinion | Artemis says, to the moon! But it might simply prove our human limits.


The last Apollo astronauts got off the moon after camping for 12 days in 1972. They couldn’t live on the surface of the moon for long, so they didn’t have much to do. Once they had collected rocks, driven a car, bounded like rabbits and hit a golf ball, NASA was left with a very unique journey to nowhere.

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To stamp another world with a human imprint was a great feat of engineering and ingenuity. But a sense of unfinished business hung over the departure of the astronauts: We will return, NASA seemed to say, when we figure out how to linger, and why.

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The half century ago was not wasted. Building and maintaining a space station in low orbit makes a much more distant lunar station plausible. And now the recent launch of the Artemis mission: NASA’s Phase 1 of humanity’s return to the moon.

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Huge advances in computing and artificial intelligence have made the operation of a permanent lunar base possible. Fully robotic, this first Artemis flight will conduct tests and surveillance in preparation for an eventual human outpost – not likely in 10 years but perhaps within 25 years.

As is often the case in the field of human spaceflight, Artemis is busy, controversial, in danger and too expensive. It’s also exciting: the next chapter of Apollo’s long-delayed story.

Fans of Artemis to promote the mission as a platform to colonize Mars. Then, to infinity and beyond. But Artemis could be the frontier of human space travel – though not the end of exploration.

The case for human space travel has become dominated by darkness. The naïve optimism of “Star Trek” emphasized physics to imagine human ambassadors to distant galaxies. Today’s leading proponents are pessimists, portraying grim lifeboats loaded with refugees from a dying Earth. Billions of rocket ships portend a future so terrifying it looks like the airless desert of Mars.

Artemis aims to learn the lessons necessary for human survival in space, with the subtext that will inspire those lessons. But it’s at least as likely that extended periods on the moon will show how unfit humans are for extended periods — or even lifetimes — on Earth. Organisms evolve to thrive in specific environments. The human body is exquisitely tuned to a single G of gravity and a magnetic field, neither of which is present on the moon or Mars.

Even in the relatively friendly realm of low orbit, human bodies suffer rapid decay. ​​​​​​One study of preserved blood samples from space shuttle astronauts found gene mutations that could be fatal in all cases. The astronauts spent an average of only 12 days away from Earth. Other experiments have shown that traveling beyond Earth causes bone loss, impairs vision, changes the density of fluid around the brain and so on. Some scientists are very skeptical that a healthy human fetus could develop in the radiation storms of space, challenging the idea of ​​colonizing Mars.

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While Artemis voyagers will test the limits of human flesh in inhuman places, robotic technology will continue to advance. Current missions offer a glimpse of the miraculous future of machines in space. The James Webb Space Telescope, deployed four times farther than the moon, has just begun to dazzle us with its infrared eye. The Mars Persistence rover has found intriguing evidence of organic molecules — possible signs of ancient life — in the rocks it processes through its on-board laboratory. Working hard, the rover has time to share high-definition images of the Martian landscape.

Thus, two powerful opposing trend lines could define the Artemis era. On the one hand, the lunar experiment may reveal additional ways in which the human animal is unfit for life outside its natural habitat. Just as fish do not thrive in the open air and sparrows do not live in caves, humans may be exclusively adapted to life within the Earth’s ionosphere.

While we are finding our human limits, robotics will follow the opposite trend. Rovers will add touch and sound and smell to their senses; they will gain the power to come and go between Earth and space; their ability to guide themselves over distant worlds and respond to their own discoveries will increase.

Perhaps the ultimate gift of Artemis is a better understanding of the lifeboat we already have, and the powerful creativity of the human intellect. To accept that the Earth is our home does not necessarily mean that it is our prison.


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