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By Scott Levine
On Nov. 16, after months of delays, NASA launched its Artemis I rocket from Cape Canaveral, carrying the uncrewed Orion spacecraft.
Artemis looks like a Frankenstein’s mix of leftovers from the towering Saturn V rocket that brought the Apollo missions to the moon decades ago and the space shuttles, with their rust-colored fuel tank and side-mounted solid rocket boosters. As it rose on its tower of flames and arced over the Atlantic, the American space program was on its way back to the moon for the first time since Apollo 17 headed home 50 years ago next month.
Orion will orbit the moon until mid-December. One day, it will carry astronauts, not just to the moon, but to Mars or even beyond. I’m too young to remember Apollo but as I watched the Artemis launch, it reminded me of the story of Apollo 8, which launched just before Christmas 1968. That was the first crewed mission to the moon, the first time humans saw our nearest neighbor up close, the first time we saw the moon’s far side. Apollo 8 didn’t land on the moon, but orbited 10 times before heading home.
Apollo 8, just like Artemis, came at a moment when America was going through some difficult times. It was so inspiring that people wrote letters to NASA telling them that they saved the holidays, and saved 1968.
This holiday season, while we’re still here on the ground, we can look into our own future. Let’s head out and track down the full moon and Mars on the night of Dec. 7. For much of North America, Europe and parts of North Africa, the moon will completely block, or occult, Mars for part of the night. We fall just outside that occultation area, but as the candles flicker and the lights twinkle, the pair will be close enough to look as though they’re almost touching. We’ll be able to block out the gap between them with just our pinky stretched at arm’s length.
While uncrewed missions don’t bring the excitement of sending astronauts all that way, it’s amazing to think of what the engineers, scientists and other workers have accomplished here on the ground. We have robots exploring distant corners of the solar system, some of them speeding away from us toward parts unknown.
Every one of these explorers is a small slice of the good, the forward-thinking parts of humanity, the parts most of us are proud to share with the galaxy. Observatories that were unimaginable at the time of Apollo now let us see neighborhoods of the universe that are almost as old as time itself. It is undoubtably a golden age of space exploration.
In that one view as we look toward the skies on Dec. 7, with the orbiting Orion and the legacy of Apollo hidden by that distance, we can see where we’ve been and where we’re going. The things we’ve learned from these missions have been immeasurable, and we can only dream what we’ll learn tomorrow. Who knows? Maybe one of the kids looking up will grow up to send the rest of us to the stars.
Happy holidays, whatever you’re celebrating, and clear skies, everyone!
Scott Levine (email@example.com) is an astronomy writer and speaker from Croton-on-Hudson. He is also a member of Westchester Amateur Astronomers, a group dedicated to astronomy outreach in our area. For information about the club including membership, newsletters, upcoming meetings and lectures at Pace University and star parties at Ward Pound Ridge Reservation, visit www.westchesterastronomers.org.
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