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A new era in spaceflight: Back to the moon on the way to Mars

President John Kennedy’s challenge was to put a man on the moon, but a return has a different purpose.

This story is one in a series about U.S. human spaceflight.

O n May 25, 1961, President John Kennedy issued a challenge to lawmakers, the new U.S. space agency and the American people.

“I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth,” Kennedy said in a speech before Congress.

It was an ambitious goal. But in July 1969, NASA would achieve it. Apollo 11 — with Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin aboard — landed on the lunar surface and made it back to Earth. This moonshot was no one-shot deal. Astronauts returned to the moon five times for further exploration.

NASA announced this summer that it plans to head back there in the 2020s, about 50 years after astronauts last visited. But this time, the moon isn’t considered a destination. It’s a pit stop on the way to the next space goal: sending humans to Mars. To understand this new era of human spaceflight, it’s important to look back at what Kennedy set in motion 57 years ago.

A proving ground

When Kennedy made his plea to Congress, the United States had just launched its first manned spacecraft. Alan Shepard made a 15-minute suborbital flight, traveling 115 miles up and then returning to Earth. The Soviet Union had sent the first man into space several weeks earlier. Not only had Yuri Gagarin’s flight lasted longer — 108 minutes — but he also completed a single orbit of the Earth. The United States was embarrassed. It didn’t want the Soviets — the only other world superpower at the time — to get ahead in space exploration.

“There was this battle for hearts and minds,” says Teasel Muir-Harmony, space history curator at the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum. “Beating the Soviets in space was important for the United States’ place in the world.”

The president had talked with NASA scientists about which achievement was within reach for the United States and perhaps further away for the Soviets.

“The U.S. at the time was better at landings,” Muir-Harmony said. “The Soviet Union at the time was having trouble with landings.”

So they chose landing on the moon, which is on average 240,000 miles away. (The distance changes because its orbit is not a circle.) At that point, Gagarin had traveled the farthest from Earth — 203 miles. Muir-Harmony said Kennedy purposely chose not to aim just one step ahead of the Soviets.

“If we propose this program that’s really bold . . . they’d have to invest in new technologies,” Muir-Harmony said. Members of Congress would debate spending nearly $1.7 billion on the space program for the next year.

That money and billions more approved in the 1960s paid not only for the Apollo missions but also rockets and other technology that NASA has used in the decades since then. That, too, was part of Kennedy’s pitch to Congress.

“This gives promise of some day providing a means for even more exciting and ambitious exploration of space, perhaps beyond the moon, perhaps to the very end of the solar system itself,” he said.

Back and forward

NASA has sent spacecraft to explore the far reaches of our solar system and beyond, but none has included humans. Instead, astronauts have been studying the effects of living and working in space by orbiting Earth, first on Skylab and since 2000 on the International Space Station (ISS).

The missions have become more collaborative than competitive. NASA has four international partners: space agencies in Russia, Canada, Japan and Europe. More than 100 astronauts and cosmonauts have stayed on the ISS for long-term assignments. And private companies have partnered with NASA to take supplies to the station. Two companies, Boeing and SpaceX, are set to next year become the first private companies to ferry astronauts to the ISS.

NASA aims to work with these partners and others as it moves toward human missions to Mars. The agency’s leader, Jim Bridenstine, explained in September that the plan to get to Mars involves returning to the moon with landers, rovers, robots and humans.

“The glory of the moon is that’s it’s only a three-day journey home,” Bridenstine told members of Congress. “So we can prove all of the technologies, we can reduce all of the risks.”

And in the event of an emergency, NASA can get astronauts home quickly, he said. The journey from Mars, which is on average 140 million miles from Earth, would take about eight months.

Bridenstine announced in October that NASA is planning to send scientific equipment to the moon in 2019 or 2020. A human trip to orbit the moon, on NASA’s Orion spacecraft, would launch in 2023. An orbiting “gateway,” or a lunar space station, would follow. The gateway would allow humans and equipment to get to the moon’s surface. Eventually it would serve as a launchpad to Mars.

Meet NASA engineer Molly White, who works on Orion

These moon missions will be similar to Apollo in that the United States wants to prove its leadership in space exploration. But Muir-Harmony pointed out an important difference.

“We want to expand our knowledge of the universe. We want to advance science,” she said. “There’s not an end goal.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include mention of NASA’s Orion spacecraft.

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