It’s been 50 years since what was considered “a great leap for mankind”. Although this mission was born out of geopolitical competition between the Soviet Union and the United States, the Apollo missions have led to the innovation and progression of a space industry focused on understanding what lies beyond our planet, what the universe has to offer, and how this can further the advancement of mankind. This historic event was a turning point in history that sparked a cultural explosion, including songs, TV shows, films, and most importantly, a new generation of scientists and engineers.
The earlier missions to the moon, named after Apollo – the god of divine distance – were aimed at moon exploration with the goal of landing the first humans on the moon. Complimentary to Apollo, the Artemis programme, named after Apollo’s twin sister, was launched in 2017 to further the programme’s endeavours and foster further research and technological developments using diplomacy and international cooperation. Additionally, this programme aspires to put a person of colour and a woman on the moon, ushering in a new era for space exploration and usage.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) will launch Artemis 1, the first of a series of innovative missions to build a long-term human presence on the moon. The purpose of this uncrewed mission is to demonstrate that the NASA system in the spacecraft is capable of going to space and returning safely and hence prepare the way for Artemis II, which will be crewed. This launch was initially set for 29th August 2022 but was delayed after one of the four main engines could not be chilled to the temperatures required to handle its extremely cold propellant by launch controllers.
The Artemis I mission will orbit the moon for approximately four weeks and study the effects of space travel on the human body. Through this programme, the United States government and other nations participating in the programme have signed a bilateral agreement known as the Artemis Accords. These guidelines will outline a consensus-based set of principles for establishing a secure and open environment that supports economic, scientific, and explorational activities for the benefit of all humanity. These principles are based on the Outer Space Treaty of 1967.
Rwanda Space Agency (RSA) is among a few space agencies in Africa invited to witness the historic launch of the Artemis space system at Kennedy Space Center in Florida – USA. RSA considers this invitation by NASA as a recognition of the importance that the Government of Rwanda is giving to the development of space services in the country.
Like other African nations, Rwanda is cognizant of the value of space technology and its ability to address a variety of problems. Like many African space agencies, RSA focuses on developing space downstream services to contribute to the country’s socio-economic development. However, we are following closely what is going on at the global level on deep space exploration. As Rwanda is contemplating adhering to programmes like Artemis Accords, this will allow us to remain abreast of major initiatives for deep space exploration.
According to NASA engineers, Artemis I mission systems will be launched on the most powerful rocket in the world, and it will fly farther than any spacecraft built for humans has ever flown. Mike Sarafin, the Artemis 1 mission manager, this is a mission that truly will do what hasn’t been done and learn what isn’t known; “It will blaze a trail that people will follow on the next Orion flight, pushing the edges of the envelope to prepare for that mission.”
Enabling shared opportunities for peaceful space explorations will benefit humanity through the discovery of solutions for cutting-edge space technologies, advances in medicine, protection of the planet and environment, creation of scientific and technical jobs and scientific breakthroughs from exploring the unknown. To understand how and why the Artemis program can benefit humanity, it is important to reflect on some of the successes of the Apollo programme.
The Apollo space programme benefited humanity in a variety of ways, including increased technological capabilities for space technology, increased knowledge of the moon, and introduced new ways to explore the Moon and the Earth. The programme ushered in an assortment of new technology that, while conceived as space technology, has been adapted into products applicable to Earth. One of the most important scientific legacies of the Apollo programme is that it laid the groundwork for planetary sciences through decades of lunar exploration and sample studies. The Apollo programme improved our understanding of the moon, we learnt that it is 4.5 billion years old and made of similar materials to Earth.
While Apollo faced many challenges, the programme inspired innovation and scientific resilience. For example, following the deaths of three astronauts in the Apollo 1 incident on January 27, 1967, NASA rushed to learn how to make everything in the command module less combustible, including the astronauts’ clothing. They discovered polybenzimidazole, or PBI, a heat-resistant polymer invented by Dr Carl Shipp Marvel, a synthetic materials pioneer. After Apollo 1, a fibre that could be woven into garments inside the puffy outer shell of the astronauts’ spacesuits was developed, offering an additional layer of protection. The PBI-containing firefighting suits are still the primary market for this heat-resistant material which can withstand temperatures of up to 1300 degrees.
It is, therefore, not hard to imagine how humanity might benefit from the Artemis program that comes 50 years after the Apollo programme, benefiting from all the technological advancements in almost every aspect of space travel. As Rwanda was invited to this historic launch through the Rwanda Space Agency, it is imperative to reflect on how far Rwanda has come. From a country that has seen unspeakable things to one that has not only overcome them but has excelled and is ready to partake in some of the greatest initiatives in space exploration.