But those are all robotic missions. Despite all we’ve done in space, no human has ventured more than a few hundred miles off the surface of Earth since Apollo ended. No human has walked on Mars, visited an asteroid or even been back to the moon.
It’s important to understand that this is not really NASA’s fault. It is a government agency and must bow to political winds. There was probably no way to know at the time, but this problem was baked into Apollo itself. It was born of a space race, created quickly to achieve a singular goal — beat the Soviets to the moon — and wasn’t designed with sustainability in mind.
After all, what happens after you win a race? You declare victory, and then you go home.
What’s next? Where are we going in the next 50 years? Is another mission even possible in our current environment?
Even before Apollo ended, the American public was losing interest in the moon. Politicians listened, and Apollo 18, 19 and 20 were canceled. Focus turned toward the space shuttle and low-Earth orbit.
It’s not hard to make long-term plans about space exploration, but it’s nigh impossible to implement them. Presidents with grandiose ideas come and go, members of Congress who fund them (in general, for parochial reasons) lose elections and move on. It takes years to build components of exploration, decades to grow the infrastructure — much longer than a typical election cycle. If it hadn’t been a national priority grown from the Cold War, it’s doubtful Apollo itself would have ever happened.
And here we are, on the cusp of the golden anniversary of the greatest space exploration event in human history, yet we Americans still have no rocket to carry humans into space. The one NASA is building, the Space Launch System, is impossibly expensive, over budget, behind schedule (it was recently delayed again to launch no earlier than late 2021) and even when finished cannot launch more than once per year at best.
We cannot yet get back to the moon. Political winds have changed repeatedly, and NASA has struggled to follow them at the cost of actually getting anywhere.
And when NASA finally did have the basis of a plan to return humans to the moon in 2028 — ambitious, but plausible, given enough funding — the current president turns around and forces an asinine acceleration of the program to 2024 for obvious political and narcissistic reasons (that timing would be near the end of his potential second term, putting his name on the accomplishment). This new deadline is unlikely in the extreme to be met, but solely by its declaration it means that NASA must scramble to attempt it — creating a potentially dangerous situation for astronauts and probably affecting unrelated NASA projects. Going back to the moon in this way is a terrible idea.
It’s precisely this sort of political nonsense that has tied NASA’s hands from sending humanity back out into the solar system. It takes courage to explore space, and politicians have been known to lack that attribute.
I was a kid when Neil Armstrong left his bootprint on the lunar regolith, and I went to see Apollo 15 launch in person with my family. Those events had a lasting, perhaps indelible, impression on my young self.
But it’s been 50 years.
The solution to all this is obviously not easy, or we wouldn’t be here in the first place. There is one thing we can do: Tell our representatives in Congress that this matters. This anniversary is more than just lip service to a historic accomplishment; it’s a chance for us to figure out where we go from here. For just this one small moment, we need to look past ephemeral reelection cycles and instant polls and change the trajectory of our future.
How much longer will it take before we can reset that clock?