NASA gives its new Moon mission a name: Artemis

Cool missions need cool names, and NASA’s new plan to establish a permanent lunar presence and put an American on the Moon again now has one: Artemis. It’s a nod both to Apollo, the 50th anniversary of the culmination of which is this year, and to the fact that the program is likely to send the first woman to the Moon.

The name was announced on NASA’s social media channels, and casually mentioned by Administrator Jim Bridenstine in a call with reporters yesterday.

“It turns out that Apollo had a twin sister, Artemis. She happens to be the goddess of the Moon. Our astronaut office is very diverse and highly qualified. I think it is very beautiful that 50 years after Apollo, the Artemis program will carry the next man — and the first woman — to the Moon,” Bridenstine said.

Those familiar with Greek mythology will spot the hint NASA already placed in its nomenclature: Artemis was the Moon goddess, yes, but also goddess of the hunt. And her faithful hunting companion was named Orion — just like the multi-purpose spacecraft the agency is developing right now.

Being associated with the Moon, Artemis naturally already has a few associations with astronomy and spaceflight: More than one satellite or mission has used the name, and there are features on both Venus and the Moon itself that are named after her. But this would be by far the highest-profile application of the moniker.

Artemis would refer, presumably (I’ve asked NASA for clarification), to the major upcoming missions concerned with establishing a permanent presence on the Moon. That likely includes any major missions to explore the lunar surface, as well as any constructing infrastructure there or in lunar orbit, for example the planned Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway.

The announcement follows that of a new $1.6 billion budget increase for NASA earmarked for lunar missions — that ought to help get the ball rolling.

The femininity of the name is a deliberate choice as well: The Apollo missions were crewed exclusively by men, though they relied on many women for their success. This time around things are different: Both women and men have now explored and set records in space, and no doubt those of other identifications will do so soon as well.

Bridenstine said he’s counting on this for the next generation: “I have an 11-year-old daughter, and I want her to be able to see herself in the same way that our current very diverse astronaut corps sees itself.”

“If we look at the history of Moon landings, it was test pilots from the 1960s and 1970s, fighter pilots, and there were no opportunities for women back then. This program is going to enable a new generation of young girls like my daughter to see themselves in a way that maybe they wouldn’t otherwise see themselves,” he said at a Q&A after the announcement.

Expect Artemis to stick around for a decade or more — going to the Moon is no simple affair, and even initial successes will only be laying the foundation for larger, more ambitious missions going forward.

(NB: NASA recommends that Moon be capitalized when it’s ours, and lowercase when referring to another moon or moons in general. The more you know!)