Why haven’t we returned to the moon?

One of NASA’s greatest achievements remains that 12 people landed on the moon. Let’s paint a picture on the moon: imagine the astronauts collecting rocks, taking photos, conducting experiments, placing some flags and returning home. This was the first experience of human beings on the moon and unfortunately it was the last. More than 45 years later after the crew landed on the Moon with the Apollo 17 mission, in December 1972, there are many reasons to return astronauts to Earth’s dusty natural satellite. 

What to do on the Moon

Researchers and entrepreneurs believe that a manned base on the Moon would have a number of benefits such as: the Moon could become a fuel depot for missions in space, could lead to the creation of unprecedented space telescopes, make it easier to live on Mars and solve scientific mysteries about the Earth and the creation of the Moon. A lunar base could even become a thriving economy off Earth, it could even be one based on lunar space tourism. 

This is the next logical step, according to former astronaut Chris Hadfield, but many astronauts and other experts suggest that the major impediments to crew missions to the Moon over the past four decades have been depreciating. So we the question arises, is it really expensive to get to the Moon? Yes, it is but not as much as it seems. 

The biggest problem

One big obstacle to any space flight program is the high cost of sending people to the Moon.

A law signed in March 2017 by President Donald Trump gave NASA an annual budget of approximately $19.5 billion and in 2019 the U.S president said he would be willing to give NASA an unlimited budget if the space agence can get someone to Mars by the end of this term.

A budget of nearly $20 billion may seem like a lot of money until you consider what the total is divided among all the agency’s divisions and ambitious projects: the James Webb Space Telescope, the giant rocket project called Space Launch System and missions far from the sun, Jupiter, Mars, the Asteroid Belt, the Kuiper Belt and the edge of the solar system. (As a referencing point: the U.S. Army has a budget of about $600 billion a year). It should also be noted that NASA’s budget is somewhat meagre compared to past allocations.  

“NASA’s share of the federal budget peaked at 4% in 1965. For the past 40 years it has been below 1% and for the past 15 years it has been heading towards 0.4% of the federal budget,” said Apollo 7 astronaut Walter Cunningham.

 The difference is palpable.

Trump’s budget requires a return to the moon and then an orbital visit to Mars but given the risings costs and the consequential delays associated with NASA’s SLS rocket program, the project becomes an uphill battle. 

A 2005 NASA report estimated that returning to the Moon would cost about 104 billion (about 133 billion today) in about 13 years. The Apollo program cost about $120 billion in current dollars.  

“Manned exploration is the most expensive space enterprise and therefore the most difficult to obtain political support,” Cunningham said during his testimony.

The important thing is the mission

From the astronaut’s perspective, it’s the mission that’s important. The process of designing, engineering and testing a spacecraft that could easily get humans to another world exceeds the terms of a single president. There is a predictable pattern of incoming presidents and legislators dismissing the space exploration priorities of the previous leader. 

“I would like the next president to support a budget that will allow us to accomplish the mission we are asked to do, whatever the mission,” wrote astronaut Scott Kelly, who spent a year in space. 

The race to conquer space

In February of this year, Jim Bredenstine, NASA’s administrator proposed returning to the Moon by 2028 and forming a settlement there. The Trump administration did not seem to like this date and issues a warning for NASA to expedite the return of the astronauts by 20201. Vice President Mike Pence said, “If private rockets are the only way to get U.S astronauts back to the Moon in five years, then they will be private rockets.  

Minutes later, Bridenstine replied, “message perfectly received,” and pledged to accelerate construction of the SLS to be ready by 2020. 

A new race to conquer space begins.

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