Australia joins NASA's mission to return to the moon

Australia joins NASA's mission to return to the moon
© Getty Images

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison recently paid a visit to the White House and was treated to a full state dinner with all the trimmings. At the same time, the Australian Space Agency and NASA signed an agreement that makes Australia the latest member of the international coalition to return to the moon and then go to Mars.

“The statement foresees potential Australian contributions in areas of mutual interest such as robotics, automation and remote asset management — similar to that currently used by Australia in mining operations — and builds on a unique history of space cooperation between the U.S. and Australia that dates back to the Apollo era.  

“As part of Australia's commitment to partner with NASA, Morrison pledged to more than triple the Australian Space Agency budget to support Artemis and Moon to Mars.”

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The Australian Space Agency is a new organization, just a year old. But American-Australian space cooperation goes back decades to the Apollo program, Australian space communication facilities played a crucial role in tracking and communicating with the Apollo moon missions in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Australia’s participation in the Apollo 11 moon landing was immortalized in “The Dish,” a warm, charming movie that starred Sam Neil. “The Dish” not only showed an inside look at what it took to maintain a link with the Apollo 11 spacecraft but revealed that the awe people felt at seeing men walk on the moon was world-wide. In the film, the whole nearby town of Parkes, filled with colorful characters, felt that they were participants in the greatest adventure in human history — so far.

Most of the world in the summer of 1969 were passive observers of the first moon landing. NASA’s tireless efforts to acquire international and commercial partners for Project Artemis will ensure that will not be the case when the next moon landing occurs, hopefully in 2024.

When that “first women and next man” emerge from the lunar lander and tread the surface of the moon’s south pole, they will have been put there by the efforts of scientists and engineers of many nations. People watching the event on TV, live streaming, or with their virtual reality goggles will be able to turn to one another and say: We helped to do that. The next moon landing will be a unifying event such as the world has never seen.

Artemis 3 is envisioned to have an all-American crew. However, subsequent mission to the moon and the eventual Lunar Base (or “Moon Village” as some in Europe will prefer to call it) will have astronauts from many nations of the NASA coalitions.

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As the 2020s progress, people from many countries, including Great Britain, Italy, India, Israel, Japan and — yes — Australia will send their own citizens to the moon, to help open the high frontier. These men and women will become as heroic in their own nations and as well known around the world as Armstrong, Aldrin, Conrad, Young and Cernan were almost two generations ago.

The Artemis moon program will be as much about international diplomacy as it will be about science and commerce. Coalitions of countries are usually built to wage war, from the World Wars to the various conflicts in the Middle East starting with Desert Storm, the United States has relied on allies to help carry the day.

Artemis will not be the first space program to include American allies. When President Reagan first announced the construction of an orbiting space station, Canada, Japan and the European Union were partners in the undertaking. President Clinton later invited Russia to join the endeavor. The International Space Station now stands as an example of what allies can do in space, studying science and developing technology in low-Earth orbit for mutual benefit.

The Artemis moon program promises to have the same benefit for those countries and private companies that participate. Space exploration has thus become a way to unite the world as no other undertaking has before in history, in peace, without war, without mass killing.

The Apollo 11 astronauts famously uncovered a plaque that read, in part, “We came in peace for all mankind.” The astronauts of the Artemis 3, the mission meant to return to the moon, might well unveil another plaque. “We came in peace with all humankind.”

Mark Whittington is the author of space exploration studies “Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon? as well as “The Moon, Mars and Beyond.”