Why does NASA want to send humans back to the moon? Politics

Written by Amy Ta, produced by Marcelle Hutchins

NASA's next-generation moon rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS), sits on the pad early in the morning before the unmanned Artemis 1 mission was scrubbed, at Cape Canaveral, Florida, U.S., August 29, 2022. Photo by REUTERS/Steve Nesius.

NASA’s new moon rocket, Artemis 1, was expected to launch today, but the space agency scrapped the unmanned mission, saying it was having problems with a hydrogen line meant to cool one of the rocket’s engines. Artemis 1 is meant to debut NASA’s Space Launch System, which promises to send crewed missions to the moon at the end of 2025. That’s more than 50 years after the U.S. last successfully sent crewed missions to the moon. 

NASA is expected to try to launch the new rocket again on Friday. 

“The question remaining is whether they're going to have to roll the rocket back into the building to fix the engine or not. … They want to minimize the number of times they bring it in and out,” says Lisa Grossman, astronomy reporter at Science News. “So if they can fix it on the launch pad, that's better for Friday launch. If they have to bring it back in, it'll probably take longer.”

She points out that people in the space community wished NASA never stopped sending people to the moon — for political reasons — but they got distracted. 

“We only had 12 people walk on the moon in the [19]60s and 70s. And then we had already beaten the USSR to the moon. So the political will to do it dried up. And also NASA shifted focus … to the International Space Station, so sending people to Earth orbit to learn how to live in space there. … So that's what we've been doing for the past several decades.”

Now Joe Biden is picking up where Donald Trump left off, whereas in the past, a new president came in with different space goals than his predecessor, Grossman says. 

In 2025, if people do reach the moon, they’ll mostly walk on its surface and bring back samples, she says, but the ultimate goal is to use the moon to learn how to go deeper into the solar system, including onto Mars and maybe an asteroid.   

Because making this happen is so pricey, NASA is partnering with a private company — SpaceX. 

“It does take a lot of money to develop a new rocket and to do it safely so that we don't have a lot of explosions before we succeed. It has been delayed and delayed and delayed. And it has blown through its budget a couple of different times. … There are people who will say this was not worth it, we shouldn't have done it this way. And then there are people who are just going to be happy to see astronauts on the moon, however they get there. And then there's a wide spectrum of opinions in between.”