To celebrate the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 the Smithsonian projected the image of a Saturn V taking off on the Washington Monument. It was a stunning display that half a million spectators, including myself, went to see on the National Mall. Afterward, I was walking home when I overheard a young girl ask her mother, “Why haven’t we gone back to the moon?” This was an innocent yet vital question.

Since the termination of NASA’s Apollo program, America has failed to successfully sustain a beyond low-Earth orbit (LEO) human spaceflight program. When it came to going beyond LEO, failure wasn’t just an option, it was a near certainty. Past presidential administrations have initiated numerous programs, none of which came to fruition. I watched NASA’s credibility in the international space community deteriorate with each consecutive failure. Every time there was a change in White House leadership, prior plans were abandoned, and new strategies introduced that later suffered the same fate.

NASA’s 13th Administrator Jim Bridenstine was determined to break this pernicious cycle of failure and ensure the success of the newly established Artemis program, dedicated to sending humanity to the moon and Mars. Bridenstine recognized that creating a sustainable program required two key ingredients, the first of which was bipartisanship. From its conception, the Artemis program has not been a Republican program or a Democratic program, it is an American program — one that represents the best that this country has to offer. Visionary Democratic leaders such as Sens. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), and John Hickenlooper (D-Colo,), as well as Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-Colo.), all joined with Bridenstine to establish unprecedented bipartisan support for Artemis. Bipartisan statements in favor of the Artemis program helped reassure trepidatious international partner nations, some of which were on the verge of aligning with China which has been viewed as a more reliable partner for beyond LEO space exploration.

These international partners represent the other key to Artemis’s success. While the U.S. has failed to implement a sustainable human lunar mission, the opposite has been true in Earth orbit. Specifically, the International Space Station has been and remains the crown jewel of global human spaceflight. For over 20 years a group of international astronauts have lived and worked in this singular research facility, an extraordinary accomplishment that deserves a Nobel Peace Prize.

A key difference between the Space Station’s success and the failure of past NASA lunar programs is international participation. International participation brings not only additional resources, but vital sustainability. Therefore, international participation was built into the very fabric of the Artemis program and manifested via the Artemis Accords.

The accords provide international partners the opportunity to explicitly join the Artemis program while also committing to principles reinforcing and implementing UN treaties. In less than two years, 21 countries have signed the Artemis Accords, nine under the previous administration and now an additional 12 under the existing White House leadership. Vice President Kamala Harris deserves a great deal of personal credit for her strong support of the Artemis Accords, which she has been an ambassador for while meeting with heads of state around the world. The accords will ensure that the Artemis program is the broadest and most diverse human spaceflight initiative in history, making Artemis a truly global effort and one that will secure a peaceful and prosperous future in space for all of humanity to enjoy.

While technical issues can be challenging, I’ve always believed that politics have an equal if not greater impact on a space program’s likelihood of success. There is no rocket equation for Congress, which is why sustaining a program to return humanity to the moon has remained so elusive. After decades of failure, leaders from across multiple administrations have overcome the odds to do what hasn’t been accomplished in decades. People like former Vice President Mike Pence, who set the course back to the moon with Space Policy Directive One, and Scott Pace, who led a newly reformed National Space Council, and then Biden administration officials from Bhavya Lal who defended Artemis during a dangerous transitory period as senior White House appointee at NASA, Deputy Administrator Pam Melroy, who has supported Artemis in a variety of roles long before the program was named, and of course Bill Nelson, who has boldly led the way for a return to the moon with alacrity both as a Senator and now as the 14th NASA administrator.

When a diverse group of astronauts from America and the Accords family of nations set foot on the moon, it will be because government and industry leaders put aside their differences to embrace the unifying vision of Artemis. This is a singular accomplishment that will help build a better future for all of us here on Earth. The Space Launch System, the most powerful rocket in the history of humanity, along with numerous commercial rockets, will soon transform Artemis from concept to reality. The flame of these rockets will serve as a light pushing back the darkness of disease, disunity and despair.

I don’t know where the young girl is now who asked the question about why we haven’t returned to the moon. However, I hope that in the coming months and years, she will look up into the sky, see the answer, and be inspired to join the Artemis journey.

Mike Gold is executive vice president of civil space and external affairs at aerospace company Redwire, and previously served as NASA associate administrator for Space Policy and Partnerships, and as acting administrator for the Office of International and Interagency Relations.

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