Diversity can drive outcomes from NASA’s latest moon-shot

This weekend, humankind will make a big step towards returning to the Moon for the first time since 1972 with the launch of Artemis I, the first of three increasingly complex missions.

It’s a 42-day uncrewed mission to travel to the Moon and return to Earth for a splashdown in the Pacific Ocean. The CSIRO-operated NASA Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex, alongside our sister stations in Spain and the USA, will support the entire Artemis I voyage around-the-clock.

It’s one of the most powerful rockets ever launched and a literal moon-shot, but how is it faring as a figurative one?

The Apollo program of the 1960s and 1970s inspired the imagination of the world for generations. It drove the technological, economic and political revolution that defines the world in which we live today, but it was not without controversy.

The US government was criticised for the Apollo program’s lack of diversity and for choosing to spend 2.5 per cent of the nation’s GDP rather than on addressing societal problems on Earth. The eventual level of disruption and tech development was barely imagined.

Artemis Space Launch System (SLS) rocket. Photo: NASA

Australia was part of the first Moon landing in 1969, and we will be there when NASA lands a woman and person of colour on the Moon in the middle of this decade. As the rocket is poised to launch, it’s timely to contemplate what we might imagine for the Artemis era.

Imagination is the ability to inhabit a world you aren’t personally experiencing. It could be the Marvel universe, the last moments of a dying star, music, or someone else’s lived experience.

Imagination is a neurological reality. Functional magnetic resonance images show that the same parts of the brain light up when imagining things as when experiencing them ‘for real’.

Change happens on a large scale when many of us can imagine a different future and we choose to make it real.

For eight years before Apollo 11 landed on the Moon, the whole world knew what America intended and was gripped by it. Our collective imagination about the future changed forever.

It was the decade that saw an explosion in space-related science-fiction like the Jetsons, Blake’s 7, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and The Ship Who Sang.

And when Apollo 11 finally landed on the moon in 1969, one in every six people alive on the planet watched the grainy footage. It was first received via an antenna on the lands of the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people at Honeysuckle Creek just outside of Canberra, and later by CSIRO’s Parkes radio telescope, Murriyang.

My childhood was full of technology inspired by the space race. The ‘Apollo generation’ made computer games, brought the internet and email out of defence labs and into our homes, invented the VHS video recorder, launched tv satellites, and gave us GPS.

The generation I grew up with brought you the dotcom boom and bust, social media, smartphones, apps, networked games, and the metaverse. These things have made the world in which we live today because there were enough of us who could imagine inhabiting that world.

So where to from here? The Artemis program aims to establish a sustained human presence on the Moon and, from there, eyes are set firmly on Mars.

While there, the program will learn how to operate on the surface of another celestial body and prove the technologies we need before sending astronauts on missions to Mars.

Back to that question about figurative moonshots. Although the Artemis program announcement hasn’t captured our collective imagination in the same way as Apollo, its ideas are already threading through our collective imagination, and it may yet achieve its own legacy.

A quick scan of the top 10 science fiction books in Australia and America shows a theme of survival in a post-apocalyptic Earth or fantasy planets in imagined galaxies, with thin biodiversity and a scarcity of critical resources.

It’s a narrative borne out of the real-life IPCC climate ‘code red’ into which we are staring, and the $1 trillion economic boom that the space sector is expected to achieve for earth-bound industries by 2040.

In this sense, it seems that Artemis is in dialogue with the contemporary zeitgeist, just as the Apollo program was.

Although spending on the Artemis program is not on the Apollo scale, it’s attracting similar questions. While there have also been questions about some of the resource-driven aspects of space exploration down the track, the Artemis Accord explicitly promotes the sustainable and beneficial use of space for all.

There’s no denying, however, that technologies such as artificial intelligence, telecommunications and automation are energy and minerals hungry in a decarbonised economy, perhaps in a way that only extra-terrestrial sources can satisfy.

Perhaps the best way to navigate that tension is to ensure diversity in space. CSIRO’s ‘Our Future World’ report identified a series of megatrends that are happening right now and will shape our future.

‘Unlocking the human dimension’ is a megatrend that puts people back into the conversation. There’s a nexus around social cohesion, wealth distribution, income inequality, and trust; they reinforce each other, creating a spiral that could go in either direction.

We can choose to tilt the tables towards the spiral we want. Informed customers and citizens have increased expectations of environmental, corporate and social governance.

Diverse teams make better decisions. Reinstating the value of indigenous knowledge opens the possibility of entirely new kinds of science.

Combine all those and we can choose to imagine that the Artemis program doesn’t just give us a way of managing the existential threat of climate change, but that we can imagine different ways and therefore different futures.

We need the Artemis program to inspire. We need it to fire the collective imagination, so we can make the kind of world we all want to live in back here on Earth

Professor Elanor Huntington is the Executive Director for Digital, National Facilities and Collections at the CSIRO, and is a director on the boards of the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering; AARNET; and the Pawsey Supercomputing Centre. You can follow her on Twitter @profelanor

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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