NASA Won’t Be Going ‘Back’ to the Moon—It Wants to Go Beyond It

At a 50th-anniversary event for Apollo 8, NASA’s Jim Bridenstine envisioned the moon’s potential for future space exploration

Space Window
Beneath the Space Window at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., where a seven-gram sample of moon rock is incorporated into the design, a sold-out crowd gathered this week for the celebration of the 50th Anniversary of Apollo 8. Jim Preston, NASM

It was an event to commemorate Apollo 8’s breakthrough half a century ago—the first time humans had escaped the Earth’s gravitational pull to orbit the moon, by far the furthest travel from the planet.

But NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine wanted to talk about the future. “We’re talking about the Apollo era with an eye for the future,” he said at the sold-out Smithsonian event held at the Washington National Cathedral Dec. 11. “We’re thinking about the future, what are we doing next and how are we going to accomplish it.”

And the moon is all part of it.

True, the last time boots were on the moon was 1972. But now the space agency is looking at the moon as a launching pad beyond its craters. “I want to be clear,” Bridenstine says. “We’re not going back to the moon; we’re going forward to the moon.”

Taking its cue from the president’s Space Policy Directive 1, signed exactly a year earlier, NASA will look at the moon in context to its missions to Mars and beyond.

“This time when we go to the moon, we’re going to stay. This isn’t about leaving flags and footprints,” Bridenstine says, “but we’re going to go with sustainable, reusable architecture so we can go back to the moon over and over and over again.” Like the space shuttle system and newer rocketry, by reusing missiles and transport “the cost goes down and access goes up,” he says.

Jim Bridenstine
“We want reusable landers to go back and forth from the Gateway to the surface of the moon over and over again,” Bridenstine says. “Not just landers, but rovers and robots and humans that can all work inside this framework of a reusable architecture.” Jim Preston, NASM

In this instance, it involves establishing a reusable command module in permanent orbit around the Moon they call the Gateway. “We want reusable landers to go back and forth from the Gateway to the surface of the moon over and over again,” Bridenstine says. “Not just landers, but rovers and robots and humans that can all work inside this framework of a reusable architecture.”

Unlike the Cold War race to space that fueled the Apollo program, the new missions will rely on international partners.

“The last time we did this, it was a contest of ideas, a contest between nations,” says Bridenstine. “This time when we do it, it’s going to be open in the way that any country in the planet can go on a website, and they can see how we do communications, how we do data, how we do avionics, how we do docking. And this architecture will enable all the nations of the earth to participate in our return to the lunar surface.”

Also different: “We’re going to do it with commercial partners,” he says. Private individuals and commercial companies will be able to take part, “the idea being that we’re going to retire the risk, we’re going to prove the technology, we’re going to prove the capability, we’re going to prove the human physiology.”

And all that will be handy on the bold next step.

Ellen R. Stofan, Jim Lovell
“If the moon is within our grasp, nothing is beyond our reach,” says the museum's director Ellen R. Stofan, (above with Apollo 8 command module pilot Jim Lovell). Jim Preston, NASM

“We’re going to replicate as much of this as possible in our journey to Mars,” Bridenstine says. Much was made at the National Cathedral event of the Apollo 8 Christmas Eve blessing and reading of the first 10 verses of Genesis, broadcast from above the Moon to Earth, and heard by an estimated one billion people.

In those lines from the Bible read by astronauts William Anders, Jim Lovell and Frank Borman, God is quoted as saying “let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters.”

God called the firmament—the vast space above the atmosphere of Earth—heaven.

But the talk of the waters was prescient, Bridenstine says. “From 1969, the first time we went to the moon, all the way to 2008, a lot of people believed the moon was bone dry,” he says. “We now know that there are hundreds of billions of tons of water ice at the poles of the moon.”

That’s important, he says, because in addition to use as water to drink, air to breathe and life support, its hydrogen and oxygen can also create rocket fuel. “That’s an astonishing discovery,” he says—and one of many instances finding unexpected water in space in recent years.

"The Spirit of Apollo" - A Celebration of the 50th Anniversary of the Apollo 8 Mission to the Moon

“We now know that there’s a moon of Jupiter, and there’s a moon of Saturn—Enceladus [of Saturn] and Europa of Jupiter—and these moons are water worlds available for us, to go make new discoveries,” he says. “And we also know that there is liquid water, ten kilometers below the surface of Mars, protected from the harsh radiation environment of deep space.”

That and the fact that Mars has a methane cycle that is commensurate with the seasons of Mars “doesn’t guarantee life, but it increases the probability,” he says. “And by the way, these discoveries were made just since I’ve been made the NASA Administrator for the last eight months. We’re living in exciting times.

“So when my new friend Capt. Jim Lovell talked about the waters above the firmament and the waters below the firmament, we didn’t know it at the time but those words had very real meaning,” Bridenstine says. “And NASA is now following the water, so we can make new discoveries, and possibly even discovering life on a world that is not our own.”

“Fifty years ago, the moon was the finish line,” says Ellen R. Stofan, director of the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, which organized the event that also included a performance from the Washington National Cathedral Choir and comments from the Most Reverend Michael B. Curry, the Presiding Bishop and Primate of the Episcopal Church.

“But the prize of Apollo wasn’t the moon, it was a world in which we could reach into the celestial sphere and find a new connection with the firmament,” Stofan says. “If the moon is within our grasp, nothing is beyond our reach.”

Or as Lovell, at 90, the only member of the Apollo 8 crew to attend the event, put it, “seeing the Earth at 240,000 miles, my world suddenly expanded to infinity.”

The Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum is leading a year-long national celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Apollo missions.

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