Opinion: The Artemis Program—Leave Politics Out of It!

By Pranav Padmanabhan

The year is 2020. Americans have set foot upon the Moon once again, under the auspices of the Constellation Program, fulfilling a vision President George W. Bush laid out nearly two decades ago.

Unfortunately, the reality could not be farther from Bush’s vision: instead of humans triumphantly escaping the confines of the planet, a pandemic confines us to our homes. And no man will reach the Moon this year. So what happened? What happened to Constellation, to Bush’s prospect? The unsatisfying answer may lie in politics.

The 2008 elections were a great victory for the Democratic Party, opposed to the Republicans whom Bush led. President Barack Obama ushered in a new wave of liberal policies, but his tenure also meant the end for Constellation. At the request of the Office of Science and Technology Policy under Obama, NASA organized the Augustine Commission to review whether our space policy enabled "a vigorous and sustainable path to achieving [our] boldest aspirations in space." Its findings? The United States would need to increase funding substantially to fully execute what Constellation dictated. Obama proposed cancelling the program in the 2011 fiscal budget, and the rest is history.

A decade later, we find ourselves in quite a similar position: a Republican incumbent’s plan to visit the lunar surface may be threatened by the election of a Democratic government. While I may disagree with many of the Trump administration’s policies, I feel that the Artemis program must not suffer the same fate as Constellation for a multitude of reasons, in the event of a Democratic victory this year.

First, I believe space policy, especially as it is currently, must stand untarnished by the influences of politics and partisanship. If that means replacing current NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, a career politician and potential climate denialist, so be it, but we must not end Artemis simply because it started under a Republican president.

Secondly, Artemis stands its own as a program to advance scientific knowledge and exploration. Going to the Moon prepares humans to both establish a permanent presence there, similarly to Antarctica, and venture to the next prime destination, Mars. A NASA expedition to the Red Planet would lay the foundation for corporations such as SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Boeing to establish commercial missions, not unlike how early, government-sponsored missions to other parts of the world enabled the later trading companies.

Space policy also serves as a potent diplomatic tool, as evidenced by the Space Race. Potential Chinese, Indian, or Russian manned missions to the Moon would call into question the United States’ superpower status, reducing its soft power. In fact, Artemis could bring astronauts from other nations, such as Japan or South Africa, to the Moon, bringing them closer to America in the process and strengthening their alliances.

Finally, continuing Artemis under a Democratic administration could facilitate political compromise. Joe Biden, vice president under Obama and the presumptive nominee, has centered his campaign on an ability to reach across the aisle, and not cancelling the program would show his commitment to that promise, strengthening his position politically. The program would also help unite Americans in a common goal, another aspect of Biden’s campaign.

Those who fail to study history are doomed to repeat it, and history shows what may happen to Artemis if a Democrat succeeds President Trump. I believe extending the program would present great benefit to the United States irrespective of party lines. America must keep politics and space separate, if it wants any future in the latter.