We choose to go back to the Moon

Along with the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landing, NASA has announced plans to go back to the Moon – and this time it’s to stay. The name of this new programme is Artemis. It mirrors the twin relationship between NASA’s previous human missions to the Moon, as well as the relationship between the figures from ancient Greece.  

In July 1960 NASA was preparing to implement its long-range plan beyond Project Mercury and to introduce a manned circumlunar mission project-then unnamed-at the NASA/Industry Program Plans Conference in Washington. Abe Silverstein, Director of Space Flight Development, proposed the name “Apollo” because it was the name of a god in ancient Greek mythology with attractive connotations and the precedent for naming manned spaceflight projects for mythological gods and heroes had been set with Mercury. Apollo was god of archery, prophecy, poetry, and music, and most significantly he was god of the sun. In his horse-drawn golden chariot, Apollo pulled the sun in its course across the sky each day. NASA approved the name and publicly announced “Project Apollo” at the July 28-29 conference.” 

Mercury is the name of the Roman deity who was the messenger of the gods, his Greek counterpart being Hermes. In ancient Greek religion and myth, Artemis is the goddess of the hunt, the wilderness, wild animals and most significantly – the Moon. Artemis is one of the most widely venerated of the ancient Greek deities and her temple at Ephesus was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Her hunting companion, Orion, loved her until the day Scorpius, the scorpion, killed him.  

Orion is the name of the spacecraft that will be taking the astronauts back to the Moon. NASA is creating the most powerful solid propellant booster for the Space Launch System (SLS) to take Orion off Earth. With this new technology, the Orion spacecraft will take astronauts back and forth from the Moon in hours rather than the multiple-day journeys the 12 astronauts had to endure in the ’60s and ’70s. Orion will then dock with Gateway, the lunar orbital outpost where astronauts will live and work. Gateway will then transfer astronauts to the Moon with reusable systems currently under development.  

NASA is looking to launch Artemis 1 in 2020 (uncrewed) to test the SLS rocket and Orion spacecraft. Then, Artemis 2 (crewed) is due to launch in 2022 where they will remain in lunar orbit on Gateway. Finally, the goal to land the first woman on the Moon will be reached with the Artemis 3 mission in 2024. This won’t be the end but just the beginning. In collaboration with commercial and international partners, NASA is looking to: “use what we learn on and around the Moon to take the next giant leap – sending astronauts to Mars.” 

With a sustainable human presence at the Moon by 2028, NASA is looking to build an open exploration architecture for missions to Mars from lunar orbit. What might they name the first human missions to Mars? Mars is named for the Roman god of war (Ares in Greek) but naming the programme Ares might not give off the, “we come in peace” vibe. A better programme name could be Athena, the goddess of wisdom and war. She is associated with peace and invention, and the spacecraft could be named after the Argo, the ship she designed for Jason and the Argonauts.  

Discover more about how ancient Stories in the Sky shape the world around us today, from missions to the Moon to the Moon’s very own day of the week, by coming to our spring school holiday programme, By the Campfire.  

Left: Artist concept of Gateway 2024, Classical Greek sculpture in the Lourve. 

Vanessa Rancour, Education Manager