The 43rd anniversary of the mission of Apollo 17, the last time men walked on the moon, has elicited a strange kind of nostalgia, and no little melancholia in some parts of the media. These qualities are captured in a Saturday story in IO9 that purports to tell us why no one has been back to the moon in over four decades and why we might soon return at last. Deadline Hollywood informs us that “The Last Man on the Moon,” a documentary on Apollo moonwalker Gene Cernan, is set for a release to both theaters and video on demand in February, having been shown at film festivals for the past year or so,
As this writer noted in his study of the relationship of politics and the space program, “Why is it so Hard to Go Back to the Moon?”, the reason we stopped going to the moon is that no one could convince President Richard Nixon of a compelling reason to continue the Apollo program in the face of congressional opposition and public disinterest. Nixon decided instead to initiate the space shuttle program, the theory being that it would lower the cost of space travel, making space missions more practical. Things did not turn out that way.
Of course, one could imagine an alternate history scenario in which Nixon found a reason to continue Apollo persuasive enough to spend the political capital to overcome congressional objections and public indifference. This writer set out to describe how this scenario would have played out in novel form in “Children of Apollo”, recently reissued as a trilogy.
So, why is there the whisper of nostalgia for moon missions like Apollo 17? Isn’t NASA embarked on the Journey to Mars, arguably far more ambitious and exciting that Apollo missions to the moon? Planetary scientist Paul Spudis, who frequently writes on space policy, was interviewed on The Space Show on Friday when he discussed NASA’s Mars plans. Spudis is of the opinion that no one could get excited about an event, such as a human landing on Mars, that is scheduled to take place when someone who is an infant today is attending college. Besides, given the current level of funding, it is unlikely that NASA could land on Mars in the 2030s.
A return to the moon, on the other hand, could happen relatively soon and for not a lot of money. People could be on the lunar surface, doing useful things, capturing the attention of the world, as soon as the second term of the next president, given a commitment, sufficient money, and good leadership.
That is something that anyone who wants to be the next president might want to think about.