Why NASA hasn’t sent astronauts to the moon for 50 years

  • NASA’s new Orion spacecraft returns from its maiden flight to the Moon on Sunday.
  • The 50th anniversary of the Apollo astronauts’ last moonwalk is Wednesday. No one has been to the moon since.
  • NASA astronauts say it takes so long to get back to the moon because of politics and money.

NASA is set to receive its new Orion spacecraft, returning from its first trip around the moon, days before the 50th anniversary of Apollo’s last moonwalk.

No one has set foot on the moon since December 14, 1972, when astronauts Gene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt performed the last moonwalk of the Apollo program. But NASA built Orion to return astronauts to lunar orbit and, as early as 2025, connect with SpaceX’s Starship to land astronauts on the moon.

astronaut in spacesuit sits on the platform of the rover lunar vehicle with wheels on the moon

Astronaut Eugene Cernan does a quick check of the Lunar Roving Vehicle, during a moonwalk, December 11, 1972.

NASA/Harrison H. Schmitt

Orion must first prove that it can fly safely back and forth, which is why NASA is flying this first mission, called Artemis I, with no humans on board. The spacecraft will undergo its biggest test on Sunday: the fiery plunge through Earth’s atmosphere, to an ocean splash. If successful, NASA plans to send astronauts on its next flight around the Moon.

“It is important that this initiative succeeds now. We tried two more times — administrations tried — and they were stillborn,” Schmitt told Insider in 2019, after the Trump administration accelerated the new moon landing schedule to 2024. (The goal has since been pushed back to 2025.)

nasa astronaut victor gantier looks inside a rocket assembly building

NASA astronaut Victor Glover tours the Space Launch System rocket inside the Vehicle Assembly Building at Kennedy Space Center, July 15, 2021.

NASA/Kim Shiflett

As early as 2004, former President George Bush had set himself the goal of sending astronauts back to the Moon. According to these plans, this should have happened by 2020, possibly as early as 2015. Some of the delays have been technical. SLS, the cornerstone of the new Artemis lunar program, is 12 years old and more than $20 billion in the pipeline, double its original schedule and budget.

But according to astronauts and NASA administrators, the main reason it took so long to launch a mission to the new moon has nothing to do with science or technology. Biggest obstacles: lack of budget and political will.

Going back to the moon was a tough sell in Washington

flag moon buzz aldrin apollo 11 astronaut plantation nasa 371257main_Flag_full

Buzz Aldrin stands next to the American flag that Apollo 11 astronauts planted on the moon on July 20, 1969.


In order to fund a new NASA moonshot, Congress and the President had to allocate the funds.

“Spaceflight is inherently risky and spaceflight is difficult,” NASA administrator Bill Nelson told Insider in August when asked why it had taken so long to return to the moon. Before assuming the lead role at NASA in 2021, Nelson was a Florida senator and a longtime member of congressional space committees.

Nelson’s predecessor was more direct.

NASA's Space Launch System (SLS) rocket, with the Orion capsule atop, slowly descends the crawler path from the agency's Kennedy Space Center in Florida on March 17, 2022.

The SLS rocket at Kennedy Space Center in Florida, March 17, 2022.

NASA/Kim Shiflett

“The program took too long and cost too much,” Jim Bridenstine, NASA administrator under former President Donald Trump, told reporters in 2019.

“If it weren’t for the political risk, we’d be on the moon right now,” Bridenstine said, adding, “Actually, we’d probably be on Mars.”

As a result, politicians generally did not allocate the funding NASA would need to return to the Moon in the near future.

Lack of public interest did not help matters. In 2018, a Pew survey found that most Americans prioritize climate research, monitoring dangerous asteroids, and basic space science over sending astronauts to the Moon or Mars. . While 72% of respondents thought it was “essential” for the United States to maintain its status as the world leader in space exploration, only 13% said sending astronauts to the Moon should be a “top priority”. Last year, a Morning Consult survey found similar results.

“Human exploration is the most expensive and, therefore, the most difficult space adventure for which to gain political support,” Walter Cunningham, an Apollo 7 astronaut, said in congressional testimony in 2015. .

New presidents can give NASA a boost

Donald Trump holds a small astronaut figurine

Former President Donald Trump holds an astronaut figurine at the White House in Washington DC, December 11, 2017.

Carlos Barria/Reuters

It doesn’t help that new presidents often change NASA’s plans and goals. As a result, NASA can suffer an administrative boost, being ordered to abandon certain projects or refocus on others every four to eight years. This makes it harder to commit to expensive projects that will take longer than an administration.

“Why would you believe what a president said about a prediction of something that was going to happen two administrations in the future?” Chris Hadfield, a former astronaut, previously told Insider. “It’s just to talk.”

In 2004, for example, the Bush administration tasked NASA with finding a way to replace the space shuttle, which was due to retire, and also return to the moon. The agency developed the Constellation program to land astronauts on the moon using a rocket called Ares and a spacecraft called Orion. NASA has spent $9 billion over five years to design, build and test hardware for this manned flight program.

Yet after President Barack Obama took office — and the Government Accountability Office released a report on NASA’s inability to estimate Constellation’s cost — Obama pushed to scrap the program and instead endorsed the rocket. SLS.

“Accelerating something so ambitious is a real challenge, and it takes commitment and money, and that’s what will be needed,” Rusty Schweickart, an Apollo 9 astronaut, told Insider. in 2019.

The money, the money, the money is from Congress

bill nelson points up while testifying at congress into a microphone

Bill Nelson, now NASA administrator, testifies during a Senate committee hearing in Washington, DC on April 21, 2021.

Graeme Jennings/Pool via Reuters

Ultimately, much of what NASA can and cannot do comes down to money.

“NASA’s share of the federal budget peaked at 4% in 1965,” Cunningham told Congress in 2015. “Over the past 40 years it has remained below 1%, and over the past 15 , it led to 0.4% of the federal budget.”

Referring to missions to Mars and a return to the Moon, Cunningham said at the time, “NASA’s budget is far too small to do all the stuff we’ve been talking about.”

This year, however, President Joe Biden has asked Congress to give NASA $25.9 billion in 2023, including an increase from $6.8 billion to $7.5 billion for the Artemis program.

According to Ars Technica, this means the new moonshot might have enough money to complete its goals for the very first time.

This story has been updated with new information. It was originally released on August 27, 2022.


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