For the past four and a half decades, no one has visited the moon. December 14th, 1972, was the last time humans walked its surface. So, why did we stop going to the Moon?
Well, from the first moon landing in 1969, to the last one in 1972, only 12 people have walked on the Moon. The astronauts, and even one geologist, studied its surface, planted measuring equipment, brought back moon rocks, and stuck a flag in the ground. While that may not sound like much, originally the space program was an enormous deal. The buildup to Apollo was against the backdrop of the highly charged Cold War, the most visible marker of which was the Space Race with the Soviet Union. But while the landing changed the world forever, enthusiasm for the space program almost immediately collapsed with the goal having been completed. Many in the US believed that the relatively symbolic mission was unreasonably expensive.
NASA’s budget at its peak in 1966 covered nearly 4.5% of the US’s total federal budget, or more than 40 billion dollars in today’s terms. In fact, although there had been 3 more Apollo missions planned, they were scrapped in favor of launching Skylab, NASA’s first space station. In the years to follow, the benefit of space stations and the huge amount of cooperation between countries in trying to establish the International Space Station by the late 90s, effectively eliminated interest in actually having people on the moon. In fact, since 1972, no human has even left low earth orbit, much less reached the moon. Plus, by 1973, the Saturn V rocket, which was the only one able to produce enough power to make the trip to another celestial body, was retired.
But in the mid 2000s, the idea of going back to the moon was reintroduced with the NASA Authorization Act of 2005. This time, the plan wasn’t just to stop by, the Act established a framework for NASA to “develop a sustained human presence on the Moon… to promote exploration, science, commerce and US preeminence in space.” This resulted in the highly anticipated Constellation program, and the creation of new rockets that would rival the Saturn V. Sadly, just three years after Constellation was started, the global economic crisis hit. By 2010, the Obama administration announced that the program was “over budget, behind schedule, and lacking in innovation”, and Constellation was officially defunded, along with a large portion of NASA. While the organization once comprised nearly 4.5% of the federal budget, by 2011 they were only allocated less than half of one percent.
In 2013, NASA’s chief Administrator stated that they would not put humans on the moon in his lifetime, although NASA does expect to send people into Mars orbit by the 2030s. But that doesn’t rule out the idea completely. Although NASA is unwilling to invest in another trip, Russia, China, Japan and the European Space Agency have all aimed to send their own astronauts to the moon, with the ESA hoping to establish a moon base within 25 years. So while it likely won’t be Americans, the moon may just see a human presence in the relatively near future.