The breathtaking launch of Artemis 1 ushered in a new era of American-led human space exploration. The nearly month-long mission to the Moon tested a new heavy-lift rocket (Space Launch System, or SLS) and capsule (Orion), and its success is a triumph for NASA and its partners.
The mission comes 11 years after the retirement of the space shuttle without an imminent successor. SpaceX’s Falcon 9 has been launching astronauts to low-Earth orbit for several years now, but NASA still lacked its own capability. In a few years, Artemis 2 will send a crew on a lunar fly-by, and Artemis 3 will land humans on the Moon for the first time since 1972.
What are the effects of a successful Artemis 1 mission?
Trump’s Space Policy Endures
Though the SLS and Orion developed out of Bush and Obama-era initiatives, the Artemis Program as we know it today is a Trump-era space policy success.
After the Columbia disaster in 2003, President Bush announced his Vision for Space Exploration, which called for retiring the shuttle and exploring “the Moon, Mars, and beyond”; it later evolved into Project Constellation. After allocated budgets were deemed inadequate for the true long-term scope of the program, President Obama canceled Constellation, but congressional pressure saved Orion and the heavy-lift rocket (which became the SLS). Obama redirected the target to an asteroid.
The Trump administration gave the program momentum and public backing, focused on returning to the Moon and gathering support for more funding. In Space Policy Directive 1, issued in 2017, the Moon again became the target, for a first landing in 2028. In 2019, the program finally received a name, Artemis (the twin sister of Apollo in Greek mythology), and the first landing was moved up to 2024 (though since then moved to 2025). NASA received increased funding over the last few years specifically for Artemis components—for 2022, for example, Congress approved $2.6 billion for SLS, beyond the $2.5 billion requested by NASA. Exploration programs received $6.8 billion for 2022 and $7.5 billion for 2023. Constellation attempted to fit into existing, completely inadequate budgets.
Despite reversing many Trump-era policies, Biden has kept Trump’s imprint on NASA intact, ending decades of costly false starts for the space agency. Though the program certainly has issues, including high costs and long timelines, with the first Artemis mission successful and the first crewed mission just a few years away, we can expect the program to at least survive another presidential transition—a major success, given the whiplash of the past several decades.
Artemis Accords and NASA Partners
The success of Artemis 1 will affect geopolitics as well. The guardrails of exploration in this new era are still being defined. The U.S.-led Artemis Accords, with their 23 signatories, attempt to construct a set of global norms building on the 1967 Outer Space Treaty that reaffirms peaceful uses of space and prohibits claims of sovereignty on celestial bodies. But there’s also the matter of resources, and the Accords explicitly permit space mining; there are potentially trillions of dollars of resources in space. China remains skeptical of the Accords and has thus far declined to sign.
A successful first mission provides an important tangible benefit for Accords signatories. What good are non-binding principles without a single launch in the namesake program by the originating country? After more than two years, the Accords nations finally held their first meeting in September. Artemis 1 should help build on that momentum as the first crewed missions approach—both addressing what the nations can accomplish together and continuing to expand the signatories. Artemis is a warning that the lack of norms in space for this new era of exploration isn’t some continuously delayed initiative far off in the future, but a problem for the present.
NASA has international partners contributing to Artemis, including Europe, Canada, and Japan, which all benefit from its success. A European Space Agency contribution, Orion’s European Service Module, performed well. Canada will be building the robotic Canadarm3 for a future lunar station, but a successful Artemis 1 also means the Canadian astronaut allotted to Artemis 2 is next up. Japan and Toyota will be building the Lunar Cruiser, a pressurized rover that will be used by astronauts to drive across the lunar surface.
SpaceX regularly launches people and cargo into orbit via its reusable Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets, but Starship, a two-stage, fully reusable launch system and spacecraft, is the centerpiece of the company’s broader ambition to reach Mars. When operational, Starship is expected to drastically reduce launch costs and perform a variety of different types of missions, including crewed Moon and Mars landings and routine trips to Earth orbit with much larger payloads.
The delays to Artemis 1 over the last few months ended up placing the SLS in a de facto race to orbit with Starship, which SpaceX is aiming to test soon. Artemis 1 may have won, avoiding a PR disaster, but SpaceX’s mammoth heavy-lift rocket looms large on the horizon. Even the existence of doubt about which would launch first made this a win for Starship.
Artemis is no paragon of financial prudence—Artemis 1 is the culmination of eleven years of development and over $20 billion spent; each launch could cost $4 billion. There have already been calls to pre-emptively cancel production of SLS and use Starship for future Artemis missions. If Starship’s remaining tests are successful and the rocket delivers its promised cost reductions (which is never a given with space), Starship will threaten the viability of NASA’s SLS.
Globalization and Post-Cold War Cooperation
The ISS is a powerful symbol and physical manifestation of globalization and the post-Cold War order. Many countries, led by the U.S. and Russia, funded and built component parts and sent astronauts to an orbital station. Each nation depended on others, even if there were political tensions back on Earth. That cooperative world is rapidly disappearing, and as the unipolar moment fades, these events are being felt beyond Earth. Artemis 1 marks a clear acceleration in this direction and a return to competition in space.
The explosive growth of satellite constellations in orbit, as well as their use in conflicts such as the Russia-Ukraine war, amplify the threat of military conflict in space. Russia has already threatened to target American satellites. The more that governments and the public rely on the critical services these satellites provide, the more is at stake with their protection. Aside from the catastrophic levels of space debris that would be created, a Russian attack on U.S. satellites as valid military targets could trigger an American response. It is now clear that images of American shuttles docked to the Russian Mir station, and Russian and American astronauts inside the ISS, are from a rapidly disappearing period of post-1991 peace.
The end of the ISS in 2030 will mark the official conclusion of the original Space Race duopoly between the U.S. and the Soviet Union/Russia, which for decades were essentially equals in crewed spaceflight. The Soviets were first to orbit, while the Americans were first to the Moon. The superpowers cooperated during detente on the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project in the 1970s, and in the 1980s, the Soviets built the Mir space station and the Americans introduced the space shuttle. The U.S. and Russia jointly developed the ISS. In the 2010s, U.S. astronauts relied solely on Russian rockets. Throughout the decades, no other nation but China has launched its own people into space, achieving the feat in 2003.
Through political, economic, and social turmoil in and between both countries, the work between the two space programs continued. Even the war in Ukraine has not halted ISS cooperation, despite bombastic threats and calls to end Russian participation. Russia’s continuing human spaceflight program is therefore no small feat. Its Soyuz spacecraft has been a reliable workhorse for decades. And Russia has announced major post-ISS plans: it is developing a (delayed) Orel spacecraft and has publicly announced a new space station in Earth orbit. Most significantly, Russia and China announced in 2021 that they plan to jointly construct a lunar space station.
But ISS participation gave Russia a stature and prestige that will be hard to replicate moving forward. Russia will likely be a junior partner in any venture or participation with China, and even if it is an equal partner on paper, this still constitutes a decline from its perch as co-equal space power with rival Americans—without any help. Though jointly announcing the lunar station in 2021, China announced last year that it is soliciting new partners for the station, with no mention of Russia.
In the Artemis era, it will be China that plays Russia’s former role as America’s primary competing spacefaring nation.
Going to Mars First
Getting to Mars seemed like the logical next step after the Moon. But with the Space Race over and enormous costs piling up, Nixon re-positioned NASA in 1972 to develop the space shuttle. Mars plans were later part of George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush’s space policies, but both were canceled. There have also been proposals from outside government, such as Mars Direct, which aimed to get to the Red Planet using existing technology (NASA did not take up the plan).
Mars is certainly part of the Artemis timeline. NASA could still in theory change plans for Artemis after the first landing and accelerate a Mars trip; the Lunar Gateway, the space station in lunar orbit scheduled to be built in the late-2020s, is not universally beloved. But NASA and other space agencies view the station as vital to exploration on the Moon and beyond. Artemis 1 solidifies the lunar-first approach in the cosmic pecking order for human exploration, aiming to establish a permanent, sustainable lunar presence before heading out further into space using the Moon as a stepping stone.
Too Early to Call
U.S.-China competition in space is completely different from the U.S.-Soviet space rivalry. There is no “race” between the two powers; China is not aiming to beat the U.S. back to the Moon, nor is the Artemis timeline affected by Chinese space progress. But while a comparable “Sputnik 1” moment is unlikely for Chinese space capabilities, the U.S. is feeling the heat in space for the first time since the 1960s. China’s capabilities are different from the Soviet Union’s: China is economically stronger and more technologically advanced.
The country has continued to make steady progress on its manned space program since it became the third country to send humans into space in 2003 on Shenzhou 5. China has built a space station, Tiangong, which is now continuously occupied. After the demise of the ISS by 2030, China may be the only nation operating its own space station in Earth orbit.
China has also outlined plans to build its own lunar base, the International Lunar Research Station (ILRS), over the next decade, and has publicly sought international partners, including Russia. Despite Chinese assurances that the plan is solely for peaceful purposes, Washington clearly views such a lunar presence as capable of being militarized, and representing a threat to U.S. national security. Competition, not cooperation, is also enforced via legislation: the Wolf Amendment, passed in 2011, bars NASA from cooperating with China in space. Given deteriorating relations and a national security strategy oriented towards great power competition, this is unlikely to change anytime soon.
While China’s official reaction to Artemis has been muted, just days after the launch, China gave an update to its lunar plans, including a lunar sample retrieval mission on the far side in 2025 and a mission to the south pole to look for water in 2026. China is aiming for a crewed landing by 2030.
So how exactly Artemis and competition with the U.S. will affect Chinese plans is still unclear. Will China gather an alternative set of nations to build its ILRS and explore the Moon? Will China pursue its own independent approach but ultimately sign the Artemis Accords? We’ll have to wait and see.