How does Artemis compare to Apollo? Space experts step in

Astronomy contacted two respected space-age scholars for perspectives on America’s two crewed lunar exploration programs: the Apollo missions of the 1960s and 1970s and the Artemis missions of the 21st century.

Here’s what they had to say.

Comparing Artemis to Apollo is natural. The spacecraft look alike, they’re both lunar exploration programs, and even the names suggest a family connection. But when it comes to the larger geopolitical context — and whether or not we’re in the midst of a new space race — the similarities between the programs dissolve.

President Kennedy proposed Project Apollo as a political response to the threat of Soviet influence on the world order. He viewed spaceflight as an essential form of soft power in the United States’ struggle for geopolitical alignment and international influence. The Artemis program is not primarily aimed at international audiences and global influence. The United States does not send humans to the lunar South Pole to win the hearts and minds of the world and convince countries to pursue liberal democracy as opposed to socialist democracy or communism. Spaceflight does not play the same role in international politics as it did in the 1960s. Today, we look to space diplomacy to create stronger bonds between nations, advance science and prevent military conflict, among other goals. In the 1960s, however, this was part of a larger ideological contest over how societies should be organized.

The first moon landing brought people together. It attracted the largest audience in history. On every continent, people stopped what they were doing, no matter what time of day or night, to watch those first steps live, together. People all over the world expressed a sense of global citizenship and unity. Will Artemis inspire the same feeling? Will it resolve the divisions we see today? It is too early to tell. But, like Apollo, it will expand the human experience. Humans will experience something that has never been experienced before. For Apollo, it was to set foot on another celestial object. For Artemis, it will be living and working on another world. By expanding the boundaries of our experience, spaceflight will once again expand what it means to be human, a process that is probably as significant today as it was in 1969.

Teasel Muir-Harmony
Curator of the Apollo Project, National Air and Space Museum


The only similarity between Apollo and Artemis is the destination – the surface of Earth’s Moon. Apollo was a unilateral effort driven by Cold War politics and was a head-to-head race to see if the United States or the Soviet Union would get to the Moon first. Science and exploration were decidedly secondary goals; the goal was simply to get safely to the Moon and back to Earth. Apollo was never intended as the start of a sustained solar system exploration program. Once the United States won the race for the Moon, there was enough inertia (and hardware) to sustain a few more missions, but no approved plans for what was to follow. So the United States after 1972 simply stopped human exploration.

Artemis, according to the December 2017 policy directive that launched it, is intended to be the first step in an “innovative and sustainable exploration program with commercial and international partners to enable human expansion across the solar system. and bring new knowledge back to Earth”. and opportunities. Beginning with missions beyond low Earth orbit, the United States will lead the return of humans to the Moon for long-term exploration and use, followed by human missions to Mars and other destinations. Competition with other countries, notably China, is a secondary objective compared to such a sustained exploration effort. The Artemis 1 mission is the first step on the way to this audacious goal. Time will tell if the United States has the political will to lead such a long-term effort.

John M. Logsdon,
Emeritus Professor of Political Science and International Affairs, Space Policy Institute at the Elliott School of International Affairs, George Washington University

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