45 years ago on July 20. 1969, human beings from the planet Earth first walked on the moon, a feat so awe inspiring that words scarcely suffice to describe it. Those people who were born after the first moon landing can hardly imagine the effect that it had on people who were able to watch the event live on television. The flight of Apollo 11 was the very first reality show, albeit without contrived drama. Roughly a billion people out of planet that number just over 3 billion people followed the lunar mission from lift off, to moon landing and moon walk, to splash down.
President John F. Kennedy proposed the race to the moon as a means to demonstrate the technological, political, and economic superiority of the United States over the Soviet Union. The Apollo moon landing succeeded in that goal far beyond what anyone could have imagined, reverberating across decades. The scientific knowledge won by the Apollo moon missions are still being uncovered 45 years after the first footsteps. Apollo was even a great economic investment, as a study by Chase Econometrics suggested, returning to the American economy many fold the money spent in new technology. That makes the moon landing unique among government programs.
It is therefore remarkable that people have not been back to the moon since the last Apollo mission departed Earth’s nearest neighbor in December, 1972. How this could be would take an entire history book to explain, but the attitude can be expressed thus. “Apollo was the greatest engineering achievement in the history of civilization, the benefits of which still redound decades later. Therefore we must never do that again.”
Two presidents named George Bush proposed space exploration programs that would have returned human beings to the moon. Bush Senior’s Space Exploration Initiative was never funded and was quietly cancelled by his successor, President Bill Clinton. Bush Junior’s Vision for Space Exploration, though it received funding, was abruptly and contemptuously cancelled by his successor, President Barack Obama. A proposal to return to the moon and build a base there by former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich was laughed out town by his main political opponent, Mitt Romney, and was even lampooned on Saturday Night Live.
This is not to say that the dream of returning to the moon and picking up the great work that Apollo so well began is entirely dead. A recent report by the National Research Council on space exploration strongly suggested that a lunar return is crucial. Members of Congress and many of the Apollo astronauts, including the late Neil Armstrong, have called for a return to the moon.
A number of private companies are working on a return to the moon. Companies like Moon Express and Astrobotic are vying to land the first commercial probe on the lunar surface under the Google Lunar X Prize, a private moon race. Bigelow Aerospace dreams of a commercial moon base, supported by NASA and others. The purpose of these endeavors is commercial, to mine ice for rocket fuel, platinum group metals, and an isotope called Helium 3 that might fuel future fusion reactors. Space Adventures recently announced that they have two customers for a private voyage around the moon. A company called Golden Spike actually proposes to sell private trips to the lunar surface.
Other countries have not given up on the moon. China landed the Chang’e 3 landing along with the Yutu rover on the moon in December, 2013. It dreams of further expeditions, culminating it is suspected with a human expedition sometime in the 2020s. Russia, India, and Europe all have their lunar exploration plans.
That there will be a next moon walker is certain. Whether that person is American, Chinese, Russian, a government astronaut, or a private explorer remains to be seen. The day the next footprints are implanted on the lunar surface will be a cause of celebration, not just for the feat itself, but because the long hiatus of lunar exploration will at last come to a close.