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Why Did We Never Go Back to the Moon?

Leonard Kelley holds a bachelor's in physics with a minor in mathematics. He loves the academic world and strives to constantly explore it.

Humans have landed on the moon six times, and then never again. Why?

Humans have landed on the moon six times, and then never again. Why?

Our Closest Neighbor

The moon is the dominant feature in the night sky and has inspired humans for millennia. The constant changes of its phases, the eclipses that grace its surface, and the many faces it seems to have etched onto it captivate all of us. Throughout history humans have wondered what the moon was like, if anything lived there, and how it got there in the first place.

These questions were unanswered until the 1960s when NASA aimed its sights on the moon and landed men there on July 20, 1969. After that, five more missions successfully landed there—but since 1972 no one has walked on the moon.

Many have asked why. Here is a sampling of the possible reasons.

1. It's Too Expensive

Nothing in life is free, and this is especially true when it came to the moon landings. Adjusted for inflation, the moon landings cost hundreds of billions of dollars. This takes into account all the prep work for the Apollo Program, including the Mercury and Gemini missions as well as development of the rocket, payload, lander, capsule, and disaster funds.

Nowadays, NASA gets a few billion dollars per year, nothing even remotely close to the 1960s level of spending. Regardless, the billions it gets is still a large sum of money. The high cost is a result of the most important component of the payload: the human beings. To provide them with atmosphere, heat, water, and food requires more materials such as metal and rocket fuel. Prices quickly get out of hand because of this because the more you bring the bigger and heavier the craft is. Sending a robot instead, which does not have the same needs as a human, is much cheaper and therefore for the same dollar amount you can send more probes into space versus one manned mission. More studies out in space is a better return on one's investment. Clearly, with such a limited budget, NASA can only afford to have more robotic missions than manned missions.

2. Robotic Probes Are Safer

Another big plus for those probes is that if one fails to get to the moon, because of mechanical failure, crash, explosion, etc., all that is lost is the money invested, the time put into building the probe, and the mechanical components. Sounds pretty bad, but what if instead it had been a person inside the rocket and that failed? Not a great outcome, for sure.

Simply put, probes take out the human element in space travel, ensuring that no one comes to harm as the mission is carried out. The U.S. has been fortunate never to lose a man in outer space, but the Russians have had it happen during re-entry. A probe can be replaced, but a human being can never be once lost. The loss of someone on the surface of the moon, stranded and left to die alone, would be horrible.

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3. National Interest Fizzled

The nail in the coffin for the Apollo program was that interest simply fizzled. The Apollo 11 landing had between half a billion to a billion people watching it, making it the most-viewed event in history. But after this, viewers of the Apollo missions declined rapidly. But it was not the people who created, funded, and ultimately cancelled the program. That was done by the Nixon administration for a few simple reasons.

The whole push to the moon was a result of the Space Race between the Soviet Union and the United States. One was going to make it to the moon before the other, and we wanted that to be us. Once that primary mission was accomplished, the blow to the Soviets was dealt. Even though real science was being conducted, as far as the government was concerned they had what they wanted. Therefore, why continue spending money and resources on a program that was not in the goals of the government?


It All Comes Together

Instead, the real possibility of Soviets control over the upper atmosphere / low-Earth orbit was real and threatening. It would be the perfect platform to launch nuclear weapons and take out any counterstrikes that would be encountered. With a new frontier to be conquered, it was decided to focus there, on renewable spacecraft that could get us to and from a space station safely. Any real deep-space science would be done with space probes, which were cheaper and easier to handle. Men in low-orbit were much safer than beyond the confines of Earth. And so the development of the Space Shuttle and eventually the International Space Station came to be, and the moon fell to the wayward side. The occasional space probe would visit and gather important scientific data, but no men would be sent to investigate.

In 2004, President Bush announced a renewed push to return to the moon, but later that goal was replaced with a manned-asteroid landing in the mid-2020s and a manned Mars landing by the mid-2030s.

So when will we return to the moon? Who knows. The private sector has been talking about it for years. Maybe another country will be the first to return. Certainly China has expressed deep interest in getting a moon base established. But rest assured, we will be going back. It is only a matter of time.

Further Reading

© 2013 Leonard Kelley


CJ Kelly from the PNW on July 17, 2014:

I think a lack of interest due to very bad timing were the main culprits. Yes, funding was getting scarce. But post-Vietnam America took a break in the late 70s from everything. We had Skylab and later on the Shuttle, but we should have kept going. I think it's a shame. We would be a better country today. I truly believe our education system would benefit from these kind of lofty goals. Great article. Voted up.

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