NASA’s space shuttle program brought Brenda Mulberry and her husband from Tampa to Florida’s Space Coast in the early 1980s. Since then, Mulberry has operated “Space Shirts,” a space-themed clothing shop not far from Kennedy Space Center.

She said business slowed significantly when shuttle launches ended in 2011.

But this year is different.

“Excitement is over the moon,” said Mulberry, in between helping customers pay for armfuls of souvenirs.

People now flock to Mulberry’s store to get anything they can related to NASA’s new Artemis mission.

“On a normal day we might see 60 to 70 people in a day in our store,” she told VOA. “We’re seeing hundreds and hundreds and hundreds an hour. It’s a zoo.”

Artemis — NASA’s ambitious program to return to the moon — has generated renewed interest in space exploration ahead of the launch of the first unmanned test flight of the SLS, or Space Launch System, rocket and the Orion capsule, which will eventually carry astronauts back to the moon more than 50 years after the last Apollo mission visited the lunar surface.

Monday’s first launch date was scrubbed, disappointing throngs of tourists, but added to the anticipation for when the program’s first liftoff occurs. NASA will try again on Saturday.

“I call it the Artemis generation. Apollo had a twin sister — Artemis — and this is our generation,” said Branelle Rodriguez, an integration manager for NASA’s Orion capsule that will house astronauts traveling to the moon and back. “I think it’s a fantastic thing for us to experience, for people to go explore and create a presence on the moon.”

NASA astronaut Stan Love said the Artemis program will feature crews that pave the way for the first woman and person of color to stand on the lunar surface.

“We are going to broaden our demographics, so it won’t just be white guys on the moon,” Love told VOA during a recent interview at Kennedy Space Center.

NASA’s goals for the Artemis program include crewed missions to the moon for decades to come.

And that’s just the beginning.

“We’re going to establish a permanent [lunar] base, but I think long term, we want to go to Mars. NASA has said this is a steppingstone to Mars eventually,” said Doug Hurley, a retired NASA astronaut who now works on Artemis for Northrop Grumman, a government contractor.

NASA projects the budget for Artemis will reach $93 billion by 2025. While critics have pointed out the program is already billions of dollars over budget and years behind schedule, Hurley says patience and expenditure will be rewarded.

“It takes time to build these complicated machines, but it’s worth it. I mean, when you look at NASA’s budget — one-half of 1% of the federal budget — and SLS is a small part of NASA’s budget. So, to me, it’s all perspective,” Hurley said.

Mulberry said criticism of the program is hard to find on Florida’s Space Coast. She credits Artemis with creating jobs and boosting tourism in a part of the state that suffered when the space shuttle program ended.

“I think everybody in the area underestimated the power this was going to have,” Mulberry told VOA.

Even though it’s an unmanned test flight, when Artemis 1 takes off on a planned six-week mission, it will provide valuable data for NASA and show how new systems function in space.

The first crewed mission back to the moon — to orbit but not to land — is Artemis 2, currently scheduled for 2024, with Artemis 3 scheduled to return astronauts to the lunar surface as early as 2025.

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