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Why do Americans want to go back to the Moon?

“We choose to go to the Moon (…) not because it’s easy, but because it’s difficult”, he declared then in the middle of the Cold War, during a founding speech delivered at the Rice University, Texas.

Sixty years later, the United States is about to launch the first mission of its return program to the Moon, Artemis. But why repeat what has already been done?

Criticism has risen in recent years, for example from Apollo 11 astronaut Michael Collins, who accused NASA of not thinking big enough by not aiming directly at Mars.

But for the American space agency, the Moon is a must before a trip to the red planet. Here are his main arguments:

– Learning to live far away –

NASA wants to develop a sustainable human presence on the Moon, with missions lasting several weeks – compared to just a few days for Apollo. The goal: to better understand how to prepare for a multi-year round trip to Mars.

In deep space, space radiation is much more intense and poses a real threat to health. Low orbit, where the International Space Station (ISS) operates, is partly protected by the Earth’s magnetic field, which is not the case on the Moon.

From the first Artemis mission, many experiments are planned to study the impact of this radiation on living organisms, or to assess the effectiveness of an anti-radiation jacket.

Moreover, while the ISS can often be resupplied, trips to the Moon (located 1,000 times further), are much more complex. To avoid having to transport everything, and thus reduce costs, NASA wants to learn how to use the resources present on the surface. In particular water in the form of ice, whose existence has been confirmed on the South Pole of the Moon, and which could be transformed into fuel (water is made up of oxygen and hydrogen, used by rockets) .

Test the equipment

NASA also wants to test on the Moon the technologies that will allow it to evolve on Mars.

First, new spacesuits for spacewalks. Their design was entrusted to the company Axiom Space for the first mission which will land on the Moon, in 2025 at the earliest.

Other needs: vehicles (pressurized or not) for the astronauts to move around, as well as housing.

Finally, for sustainable access to an energy source, NASA is working on the development of portable nuclear fission systems.

Solving any problems that arise will be much easier on the Moon, only a few days away, than on Mars, which can only be reached in at least several months.

Step on the road to Mars

Another part of the Artemis program is the construction of a space station in orbit around the Moon, called Gateway, which will serve as a relay before the trip to Mars.

All the necessary equipment can be sent there in “several launches”, before finally being joined by the crew to set off, explains to AFP Sean Fuller, responsible for the Gateway program. A bit like “going to the gas station to check that we have everything”.

Not to be overtaken by China

Apart from Mars, another reason put forward by the Americans for settling on the Moon is to do so… before the Chinese.

While in the 1960s the space race raged between the United States and Russia, today the big competitor is Beijing. China plans to send humans to the moon by 2030.

“We don’t want China to go there and say ‘this is our territory’,” Nasa boss Bill Nelson said on television at the end of August.

Expand scientific knowledge

Finally, even if the Apollo missions brought back to Earth nearly 400 kilograms of lunar rock, new samples will make it possible to further deepen our knowledge of this star and its formation.

“The samples collected during Apollo changed our view of the solar system,” astronaut Jessica Meir told AFP. “And that will continue with Artemis.”

Thanks to the investments and the scientific enthusiasm generated by these new missions, it also anticipates concrete benefits on Earth (technologies, engineering, etc.), as in the days of Apollo.