Landing 12 people on the moon remains one of NASA’s greatest achievements, if not the greatest.
Astronauts collected rocks, took photos, performed experiments, planted some flags, and then came home. But those week-long stays during the Apollo program didn’t establish a lasting human presence on the moon.
More than 45 years after the most recent crewed moon landing — Apollo 17 in December 1972 — there are plenty of reasons to return people to Earth’s giant, dusty satellite and stay there.
Researchers and entrepreneurs think a crewed base on the moon could evolve into a fuel depot for deep-space missions, lead to the creation of unprecedented space telescopes, make it easier to live on Mars, and solve longstanding scientific mysteries about Earth and the moon’s creation. A lunar base could even become a thriving off-world economy, perhaps one built around lunar space tourism.
“A permanent human research station on the moon is the next logical step. It’s only three days away. We can afford to get it wrong, and not kill everybody,” former astronaut Chris Hadfield recently told Business Insider. “And we have a whole bunch of stuff we have to invent and then test in order to learn before we can go deeper out.”
But many astronauts and other experts suggest the biggest impediments to crewed moon missions over the last four-plus decades have been banal if not depressing.
It’s really expensive to get to the moon — but not that expensive
A tried-and-true hurdle for any spaceflight program, especially for missions that involve people, is the steep cost.
Either amount sounds like a windfall — until you consider that the total gets split among all of the agency’s divisions and ambitious projects: the James Webb Space Telescope, the giant rocket project called Space Launch System, and far-flung missions to the sun, Jupiter, Mars, the Asteroid Belt, the Kuiper Belt, and the edge of the solar system. (By contrast, the US military gets a budget of about $600 billion per year. One project within that budget — the modernization and now expansion of America’s nuclear arsenal— may even cost as much as $1.7 trillion over 30 years.)
Plus, NASA’s budget is somewhat small relative to its past.
“NASA’s portion of the federal budget peaked at 4% in 1965. For the past 40 years it has remained below 1%, and for the last 15 years it has been driving toward 0.4% of the federal budget,” Apollo 7 astronaut Walter Cunningham said during a 2015 congressional testimony.
Trump’s budget calls for a return to the moon, and then later an orbital visit to Mars. But given the ballooning costs and snowballing delays related to NASA’s SLS rocket program, there may not be enough funding to make it to either destination, even if the International Space Station gets defunded early.
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