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Aristarchus crater might be a better alternative landing site for the first Artemis missions than an Apollo site, if the south pole of the Moon is ruled out. (credit: NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University)

If we are going forward to the Moon, don’t go back to Apollo

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NASA Administrator James Bridenstine recently surprised the space community by suggesting that the first crewed Artemis surface mission to the Moon, slated for 2024, might not land at the south pole as previously discussed but instead could revisit one of the Apollo landing sites in the easier-to-reach lunar equatorial regions.

“There could be scientific discoveries there and, of course, just the inspiration of going back to an original Apollo site would be pretty amazing as well,” Bridenstine said, in floating the idea at a virtual meeting of the Lunar Exploration Analysis Group. As well, he said, an Artemis mission to an Apollo site could establish “norms of behavior” for historical protection of these important heritage areas.

If we are going forward to the Moon—to borrow NASA’s ingenious and even inspiring rhetoric—then going back to Apollo right away is a mistake.

Bridenstine has since vigorously walked back these comments. “We are in fact going to the south pole of the Moon,” Bridenstine emphasized after I asked him about this during a meeting of Lunar Surface Innovation Consortium earlier this month.

But the NASA Artemis planning document does not specify the Artemis 3 site will be the south pole. While the document makes mention of obtaining samples in and next to permanently shadowed regions—which of course be found at the south pole—the report states, “The exact landing site for Artemis III astronauts depends on several factors, including the specific science objectives and the launch date.”

There clearly is room for change from a polar landing site if NASA decides. Ambiguity may prevail with a change of administrations.

Regardless, Bridenstine’s initial comments may reflect, I think, an inherent misunderstanding of the Apollo legacy in the 21st century. If we are going forward to the Moon—to borrow NASA’s ingenious and even inspiring rhetoric—then going back to Apollo right away is a mistake.

It’s worth remembering that as triumphant as Apollo was and as golden-lit as our nostalgia for it may be—at least in the space community—public support for the program was never that great during its era, as historian Roger Launius and others have pointed out. Public interest waned considerably after the Apollo 11 landing for several reasons, including declining press coverage and the continued swirl of other concerns, such as Vietnam and civil rights. It’s also the case that, having “won the race” with the Soviets, public enthusiasm just dropped. Undeniably, as well, both NASA and the science community did an atrocious job in trying to convey the wonder, mystery, and utility of our nearest companion in space. To be fair, neither astronauts nor scientists then were well-versed in the art of public communication.

Despite the 50th anniversary hoopla last year about the landing of Eagle in the Sea of Tranquility, a Pew public opinion survey showed that climate change and planetary defense rated much higher as NASA priorities versus crewed landings on the Moon or Mars.

Artemis should do immediately what Apollo did late: Go to the grandeur.

Landing an early Artemis mission at an Apollo site could well be perceived as a very expensive sightseeing trip. While establishing protocols for protection of Apollo and other craft on the Moon is needed, it should not be part of our first or second or even third landing of humans on the Moon in decades.

To give the planetary science community new and robust data, Artemis 3 and other early lunar surface missions should go to a new place, whether it’s the south pole or somewhere else.

And, just as importantly, to grow public excitement about our lunar future, Artemis should do immediately what Apollo did late: Go to the grandeur. The lunar south pole certainly won’t lack in this given its dramatic, raking light.

Apollo 15 had the lunar Apennines and Hadley Rille. Apollo 17 had the giant mountains of Taurus-Littrow. But because the public no longer cared to watch, and because the image quality was not particularly good, the sublime nature of these places left no impression on our collective consciousness. Indeed, the iconic Apollo images were Earthrise and Blue Marble—both photos of our home world.

Artemis can change that. With high-definition imagery and social media—at which NASA excels—the penetration of exciting landscapes into the public sphere will be profound. With astronauts trained to give more lyrical descriptions (another subject altogether), Artemis can excite the public about the Moon as no other program has, not even Apollo. This is not trivial. We’ve seen how images of Mars, the gas giants, Pluto, and other solar system destinations have sparked widespread excitement.

Rugged terrain speaks to us of the wild. It puts human adventure in a grand context. Hence a possible criterion: Doing great science in dramatic places. A sustainable human presence on the Moon requires both understanding and beauty. It truly does require looking ahead.

So, if a polar landing is put off, and we skip a retro-trip to an Apollo site, what location might allow us to tap into the recent exciting questions of lunar science and do so in a sublime place?

Aristarchus. Landing Artemis 3 in or beside this crater will be dangerous. But it will allow the crew to visit both a truly grand complex crater, one of the brightest on the Moon. The amount of exposed crust blown out from the Aristarchus impact would promise much good science. The plateau is also cut by a gigantic valley formed by lava flows. There is an irregular mare patch in the region that bespeaks recent volcanism. And the area has historically been the site of transient lunar phenomena, where outgassing has probably lofted statically charged lunar dust. The Apollo 11 crew even sighted an abnormal brightening of the region from orbit. Selecting among these possible locales in the area will be difficult, as one mission could not visit them all.

Complex craters, with their multiple terraces, often fractured floors, and massive central mountains, are the Moon’s most photogenic landscapes. High-definition imagery of Artemis explorations in and around Aristarchus would be unforgettable. They would inspire public interest in sustained human presence on the Moon far more than a postcard trip to a been-there, done-that Apollo site. Humans have never landed in or near such a place.

Lunar sustainability can’t indulge in the appearance of expensive nostalgia that could risk turning off shaky public support.

Perhaps the most widely circulated dramatic close-up photograph of the lunar surface during the Apollo era came not from the crews but from the 1966 Lunar Orbiter oblique view of Copernicus crater. Hailed as “the picture of the century,” it appeared on front pages around the world, and, frankly, I think, it still puts the Sea of Tranquility to shame.

Crucially, other non-Apollo sites beckon, including, as lunar scientist Peter Schultz argues for, the magnetic anomaly Reiner Gamma or the eerie-looking irregular mare patch Ina. Both likely need boots on the ground to do the science needed to characterize these sites and understand their histories. Schultz believes that they are more scientifically compelling than Aristarchus. He’s right. Yet I can’t shake the feeling that the public will respond with more visceral excitement to a locale that is wildly rugged and mountainous. Science comes first. But public interest, for better or worse, is tied to the visual rhetoric of exploration. Drama matters. Balancing these needs is important for a public that still needs to be convinced that Artemis is a good idea.

Speaking of Apollo, there may be one more reason to go to Aristarchus. It’s where Apollo 18 was going to land. Going there would afford the space community a chance to talk about why Apollo’s later missions were cancelled and why a sustainable lunar program must be different.

In any case, if we can’t get to the pole on Artemis 3, go forward to a new location and don’t return to an Apollo site—not yet. Lunar sustainability can’t indulge in the appearance of expensive nostalgia that could risk turning off shaky public support.

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