This article is from Inside Science, an editorially independent nonprofit science news service run out of the American Institute of Physics.
In May 1969, after the Apollo 10 astronauts returned from a journey that took them within 11 miles of the moon’s surface, NASA held a surprising press conference.
Top space officials scarcely mentioned the lunar landing planned for two months later. Instead, they focused on the first crewed mission to Mars.
[cms_ad:x100]Their target date: 1984.
It still hasn’t happened. And it’s not likely to until at least the 2030s.
It has now been almost 50 years after Neil Armstrong’s historic first step, and 46 years since the last two men walked on the moon — Apollo 17 astronauts Eugene Cernan and Harrison “Jack” Schmitt. Recently, Earth’s natural satellite has hosted nothing more human-connected than scientific instruments.
Then in March of this year, Vice President Mike Pence called on NASA to return astronauts to the moon in 2024 — four years earlier than the agency had originally scheduled in response to the Trump administration’s wish to focus on lunar landings. The administration sees the program, named Artemis, as a way station en route to an eventual crewed landing on Mars.
Several analysts regard that schedule for returning humans to the moon as highly optimistic.
But what accounts for the more than 50-year delay in returning astronauts to the moon and preparing to venture to Mars? And does NASA now have the desire and capability to send humans so much farther than they have ever gone before?
The answers lie in the politics, philosophy and economics that have influenced the space agency over the past half-century.
A daring agency turns cautious
In the 1960s and early 1970s, NASA was a decisive agency that was willing to accept risk. Since then it has become far more cautious.
[cms_ad:x101]“The risks that NASA took during Apollo it could not take today,” said John Logsdon, professor emeritus in George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute. “It has become an organization that is risk-averse, but something more subtle than that. The experience of the varying political support and of losing two crews on the shuttles and 50 years of existence have combined to make it a very different organization than at the peak of Apollo.”
Analysts have no doubt that NASA accepted high levels of risk as it battled the Soviet Union for space supremacy in the 1960s.
“The computer on the lunar module had circuitry equivalent to that in a toaster oven, with lots of single points of failure,” said Rod Pyle, an author, NASA consultant, and editor-in-chief of Ad Astra magazine. “So many things could have gone wrong.”
Apollo faced disaster even before sending people to space. On Jan. 27, 1967, a fire in the command module killed Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chafee, designated as the first Apollo crew, during a test on the launch pad.
But the reaction to the disaster exemplified NASA’s resilience.
Within 20 months, its scientists, engineers and contractors had discovered the cause of the fire, redesigned the command module, and launched Apollo 7 to orbit the Earth as the program’s first manned flight.
That resilience also shone through in April 1970, when an oxygen tank in Apollo 13’s service module exploded.
Then it took only hours for mission controllers to devise a plan for astronauts Jim Lovell, Fred Haise and Jack Swigert to circle the moon and return safely to Earth.
Commentators point out that Apollo 13 survived disaster despite having less computing power than a present-day smartphone. In fact, said Rod Pyle, “the average cellphone today has more computing power than the planet Earth did in 1969.”
[cms_ad:x102]Apollo 11’s lunar landing itself came close to disaster. The module overflew the landing zone and touched down with just 20 seconds of fuel left.
“We were lucky that we didn’t kill anyone during a mission [that took off],” Logsdon recalled. Robert Gilruth, considered the father of the American manned space program, “was ready to have the program quit after Apollo 11,” Logsdon added.
In his book Flight: My Life in Mission Control, flight director Christopher Kraft expressed his relief at the cancellation of the final three planned Apollo flights — 18, 19 and 20.
After reaching the moon, the risks of future crewed missions didn’t seem worth the reward to many.
“We as a species returned to low-Earth orbit,” said Steven Clarke, NASA’s deputy assistant administrator for exploration.
Orbit after orbit
First came Skylab. Then the space shuttle, which included two fatal missions during its three decades of operation. Now NASA relies on Russian Soyuz rockets to fly personnel — and SpaceX Falcon 9s to ferry supplies — to the International Space Station, the only human outpost in space.
During the same timespan, unmanned exploration has gone to the edges of the solar system and beyond.
While concerns about risk helped to cut short the Apollo program, other factors brought NASA almost back to Earth.
Shortfalls in the U.S. budget in the early 1970s played an important role. So did former President Richard Nixon’s feeling that “the American public wasn’t interested in following Apollo with another Apollo,” Logsdon said.
Mike Gruntman, from the University of Southern California’s department of astronautical engineering, sees regulation as another culprit.
“Things were done much faster and at lower cost in the 1960s,” he said. “Now it’s a much more structured process that takes much longer to do. Everything needs to be documented.”
Development of the Space Launch System, or SLS, NASA’s space shuttle-based launcher for the Artemis moon landings and other human explorations of space, illustrates the point.
Apollo’s Saturn V took just over six years from conception to initial launch. And the four Saturn V launches that culminated in Apollo 11’s took place within seven months.
In contrast, Pyle noted, the SLS “has taken 15 years to develop.” In addition, it’s not scheduled to fly until next year at the earliest. And the Artemis schedule calls for flights only every other year leading up to the moon landing.
Whenever it happens, the first flight will demonstrate NASA’s contemporary approach to human exploration of space: working in partnership with industry and overseas space agencies rather than contracting out tasks and technologies as it did during Apollo times.
“In the 1960s, government provided the models that industry built,” Gruntman explained. “Now the government says ‘this is what we need’ and industry sells its ability to the government.”
Mike Lombardi, historian of Boeing Co., agrees.
“NASA now sees that if they partner with Bezos, Musk and Boeing, it will give birth to humanity becoming a space-exploring race,” he said, referring to a trio of companies: Jeff Bezos, responsible for Blue Origin; Elon Musk of SpaceX; and SLS builder Boeing, which has acquired many of the aerospace firms that supported the Apollo program.
NASA’s Clarke sees partnerships with industry as the start of something new beyond lunar landings.
“We’re trying to jump-start the commercial services business,” he said. “We have no doubt that there will be additional spinoff benefits for other suppliers to these companies.”
NASA announced the first three commercial partners for the Artemis program in late May. Astrobiotic Technologies of Pittsburgh, Intuitive Machines of Houston, and Orbit Beyond of Edison, New Jersey, will fly up to 23 scientific payloads to the moon, scheduled to begin in 2020. “We’re literally buying a ride,” Clarke said. “These are not NASA missions; they will deliver our payloads with other customers’.”
Then in June the agency opened up the space station to space tourism. Starting next year, it will charge individuals $35,000 per night to stay in the station. Individuals will have a choice between SpaceX and Boeing to ferry them up there and back, at an estimated cost of $60 million per flight.
“NASA is opening the International Space Station to commercial opportunities and marketing these opportunities as we’ve never done before,” NASA’s chief financial officer Jeff DeWit said.
The space station isn’t new to paying customers. In 2001 the Russian space agency, which co-owns the station with the Canadian, European and Japanese space agencies and NASA, charged American businessman Dennis Tito about $20 million for a round trip to the facility.
At a maximum of two 30-day trips per year, NASA’s space tourism plainly won’t generate enough revenue to support the accelerated Artemis program.
“We’ll need additional resources in our budget to support the 2024 landing schedule,” Clarke said. NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine estimates that Artemis could require $20 billion to $30 billion in funding to support its new schedule. That translates into $4 billion to $6 billion annually beyond NASA’s current budget demand of about $20 billion per year.
Whether Congress will agree to the extra funding remains in question. But if the money comes through, NASA’s technology and experience should be sufficient to land, as Pence noted, “the first woman and the next man” on the moon in 2024 or soon after.
“Our hardware should be better and we know a lot more,” Logsdon said. “With Apollo, we were doing all this for the first time. We’ve now been sending people into space for 50 years.”
Pence harkened back to the Apollo triumphs and the NASA of old when he announced the accelerated schedule for crewed returns to the moon. “The United States must remain first in space in this century as in the last,” he said, “not just to propel our economy and secure our nation but, above all, because the rules and values of space, like every great frontier, will be written by those who have the courage to get there first and the commitment to stay.”