In the history of humanity, the moon landing remains an unrivalled success. The Apollo 17 mission by NASA left the last human footprint on the lunar surface in December 1972. Astronauts stepped on the moon, gathered rocks, took famous photographs, and conducted experiments that altered the understanding of our role in the cosmos.
But the big issue is, why haven't we gone back in after half a century? The reasons include political, financial, and public interest considerations.
NASA's Artemis program aims to rekindle lunar exploration, promising to return US astronauts to the moon by 2025 with groundbreaking diversity in its crew. Former NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine argues that science or technology isn't the issue—it's the vexing realm of politics.
Artemis has faced political risks, prolonged timelines, and exorbitant costs. The ever-shifting priorities between administrations have held it back.
Former NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, who ran the agency during the Trump administration, laments, "If it wasn't for the political risk, we would be on the moon right now. In fact, we would probably be on Mars."
NASA's 2023 budget, $25.4 billion, might sound substantial, but it was dispersed among various projects. Even though the ambitious Artemis program is scheduled to begin in 2025, the lack of budget makes it hard to happen. The agency's request for $27.2 billion in 2024 contends with competing endeavours, from the James Webb Space Telescope to the colossal Space Launch System.
Historically, NASA's share peaked at 4% in 1965 during Apollo. Today, it's around 0.5%, a fraction of the nation's space budget. Artemis's total cost from 2012 through 2025 is estimated at $93 billion, dwarfed by the entire inflation-adjusted Apollo program's staggering $257 billion.
The ever-shifting priorities of administrations have caused cancellations, a loss of approximately $20 billion, and years of wasted effort.
President Joe Biden, who might preside over the next lunar landing, faces a challenge unique to the space industry. Designing, engineering, and testing spacecraft capable of reaching another world transcends presidential terms.
Public interest in lunar expeditions has typically been modest. Even at its peak, just 53% of Americans thought the Apollo program was worthwhile.
According to recent surveys, just 12% favour manned lunar expeditions, with only 11% favouring manned Mars exploration. Meanwhile, 60% believe that detecting deadly asteroids is essential.
The moon itself presents enormous obstacles. Its rough surface makes landing dangerous, and the formation of regolith, or moon dust, has raised contamination concerns among astronauts. The hostile environment of the moon involves significant temperature changes and exposure to fatal solar radiation, posing problems that demand creative solutions.
Even though NASA is plagued with such problems, private corporations are moving into space.
Private corporations, including Elon Musk's SpaceX and Jeff Bezos's Blue Origin, are developing advanced moon-capable rockets, aligning with NASA's challenges.
Bezos plans to build the first moon base using Blue Origin's New Glenn rocket system. Musk has also discussed SpaceX's Starship launch system, which could enable affordable lunar visits.
Despite facing challenges, these ventures represent a bold step towards lunar and interplanetary missions. With renewed commitment, technological innovation, and political consensus, the dream of returning to the moon remains within reach, marking a new era of lunar exploration.