It’s been half a century since humans first set foot on the Moon? Why haven’t we gone back? Will we ever go anywhere interesting in space?
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I’m going to make you sad now. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin first set foot on the Moon on July 20, 1969. And if you do a little quick math, we’re nearly at the 48 year anniversary of that amazing event.
The last person to set foot on the Moon was Eugene Cernan, who climbed up the ladder into the lunar module on December 14, 1972. A few months until the 45th anniversary of that occasion.
Since then, all human missions have been to low Earth orbit. We’ve explored every square meter of that nothingness at an altitude of about 400 km above the surface of the Earth. Both with the space shuttle and now with the International Space Station, which has been continuously inhabited since November, 2000.
The Chinese have set up their own independent space program, and also sent humans into low-Earth orbit. But so far, nobody has gone deeper.
Over the course of the last nearly half century, there have been multiple plans to send humans farther and deeper out into space. Let me provide you with some examples:
NASA originally had a series of missions planned after they wrapped up Apollo 17. There would be more missions to the Moon, a lunar base, and maybe even crewed missions to Venus. But those were scrapped and the Skylab space station was the final mission using the Apollo hardware.
NASA then worked on the space shuttle, which provided human exploration of space from 1981 to 2011. The shuttle was never designed to go any further than low-Earth orbit. It proved that space is a place we can regularly visit for almost 3 decades, but also showed how dangerous that journey still is with the Challenger and Columbia disasters.
In 1989, the first President Bush announced a bold new plan to explore the Solar System, called the Space Exploration Initiative. This would including sending a huge human mission to Mars costing $500 billion over 20 to 30 years.
This initiative was canceled by President Clinton in 1992 and replaced with cheaper faster better. Maintaining the existing shuttle and space station program, and developing lower cost robotic missions to achieve quick wins in space exploration.
In 2004, the next President Bush announced that NASA was going to be going back to the Moon, and then on to Mars with the Constellation Program. First they’d finish the ISS, then they’d send humans out beyond the orbit of the Moon by 2008, and then put humans back on the surface of the Moon by 2020.
In 2010, President Obama announced that there would be a human Mars mission in the 2030s, but first we’d be sending humans to an asteroid by 2025. He also officially terminated the Constellation Program in 2011.
And now, here we are in 2017, with the Orion capsule and Space Launch System, in development thanks to the expertise of the folks who worked on the Space Shuttle. It’s a combination of the tried and true capsule format matched with a monster rocket, more powerful than anything that’s come before it.
If everything goes as planned, the first launch of Orion will happen in 2019, but with no crew. A further crewed launch will come after that, probably. But as we’ve seen already, plans can change, the political party in power can have different priorities, and the long term objectives can head in a new direction.
As I’m recording this video, we literally have no idea what NASA is planning to do next. Continuing on to Mars? Returning to the Moon? Visiting an asteroid? Everything is up in the air as the agency waits for President Trump to decide on a long term objective.
And as you’ve seen in the previous administrations, even if he does decide on a bold new target, it’ll mostly likely get canceled based on the next administration’s priorities. It’ll be deja vu all over again.
So, how can we get off this cycle?