‘Complicated’ reason for no moon return
Why did we stop going to the Moon?
It seemed like the dawn of a new era. Instead, it quickly faded into memory. So why haven't we been back there for almost 50 years?
We have the technology.
In fact, it is dramatically better than that which actually placed 12 astronauts on the Lunar surface between 1969 and 1972.
Computing science. Materials science. Health science. Rocket science. All have made giant leaps of progress in the intervening five decades.
So what has been holding us back? It's complicated.
Why did we go to the Moon in the first place? To prove we could? To sate our human urge to explore?
No. It was about sending a message.
The United States had been beaten into orbit by the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) with the launch of the Sputnik satellite. Then, on April 12, 1961, the Soviet Union launched Yuri Gagarin into space - the first human to leave Earth's atmosphere
US national pride was shaken to the core. What did such extraordinary technical achievements by the Soviets represent for the rapidly deteriorating Cold War?
So successive US presidents sank up to 4 per cent of their nation's yearly budget into solving the scientific and technological challenges presented by a headlong dash for the Moon. This was calculated to total about $US75 billion. In modern terms, that's in the ballpark of $US170 billion.
President John F. Kennedy bluntly told NASA administrator James Webb in 1962 it was all about beating the Russians: "Otherwise, we shouldn't be spending this kind of money, because I'm not that interested in space. I think it's good. I think we ought to know about it. We're ready to spend reasonable amounts of money. But we're talking about these fantastic expenditures which wreck our budget…"
Recordings released in 2005 reveal him blurting: "By God, we've been telling everybody we're pre-eminent in space for five years, and nobody believes it!"
Once Neil Armstrong sank his boot into the soft Lunar soil on July 20, 1969, the message had been sent: the US was top dog in space, as on Earth.
From that point on, the Moon mission days were numbered.
The Apollo Program was all about rushing US astronauts to the Lunar surface first - at any cost. So no thought was given to making it a sustainable exercise.
Nothing was reusable. The colossal Saturn 5 rocket system needed to boost the lander and capsule on its way all fell into the sea or burned up in re-entry. Once used, The lander was discarded. The capsule could handle only one splashdown.
And as for placing infrastructure in orbit or on the Moon to make visits easier and cheaper … it wasn't deemed necessary.
Very little about the Apollo Program went beyond burning bucketloads of US national treasure. There was no formal supply chain. There was no extended production line. There was, in essence, no plan beyond getting there.
And, once the Apollo launches and landings fell from prime-time TV, there was no remaining purpose. At least from the perspective of the politicians with their fingers on the purse strings.
In December 1972, Apollo 17 completed what would become the final crewed Moon mission.
With the Moon race over, the Soviet Union quietly shelved its own expensive plans. In the US, the few remaining Saturn 5 rockets were turned into memorials.
Nothing like them has been built since.
The 12 moonwalking astronauts became living legends.
Now, they are passing.
What went wrong? If it was technically viable in the 1960s, why hasn't anyone been back?
Science and exploration, it turns out, still isn't motivation enough to invest the $US1.6 billion necessary to replicate the immense power of the Saturn 5. And that's before any other aspect of such a mission is funded.
Attempts were made.
In 2004, US President George W. Bush ordered NASA to launch a new Moon program. Five years and $US9 billion later, the agency was developing the Constellation project including a new Ares rocket and its Orion crewed capsule.
All up, it was calculated to cost $US230 billion… maybe. (In contrast, the US military blows about $US600 billion each year.) In 2011, US President Barack Obama baulked at the rubbery price tag and pulled the plug.
"Manned exploration is the most expensive space venture and, consequently, the most difficult for which to obtain political support," Apollo 7 astronaut Walter Cunningham told US Congress in 2015. "Unless the country, which is Congress here, decided to put more money in it, this is just talk that we're doing here."
Eccentric entrepreneur Elon Musk says he will soon be sending tourists into Lunar orbit. But tourism isn't his business.
"There's this generation of billionaires who are space nuts, which is great," Space Shuttle astronaut Jeffrey Hoffman said last year. "The innovation that's been going on over the last 10 years in spaceflight never would have happened if it was just NASA and Boeing and Lockheed. Because there was no motivation to reduce the cost or change the way we do it."
But the motive of going to the Moon is no longer the destination.
It's about potentially lucrative resources.
Water ice has been found in craters on the Moon's south pole. With the right infrastructure in place, this could help make Lunar settlements possible … and fuel our exploration of the planets beyond.
And then there's Helium3. This isotope, carried by the solar wind, is repulsed from Earth by its atmosphere and magnetic shield. But it has been gathering on the Moon for billions of years. And it could - if we ever get the technology right - be a pollution-free source of nuclear energy.
Start-ups and venture capitalists have been scrambling towards this goal now for more than a decade.
Of these entrepreneurs, Musk seems to be making the most progress. His re-usable Falcon Heavy rocket carries about two-thirds the weight of a Saturn 5. If all goes well and its components are recovered, each launch costs about $US90 million. If it blows up, there goes $US150 million. He is planning an even bigger version, the BFR (Big F****ing rocket), though progress has not been as fast as advertised.
Meanwhile, NASA has been persistently chipping away at the challenges posed by its new supermassive Space Launch System (SLS) rocket, which promises power far in excess of its Saturn 5 predecessor. But it also has been beset by delays, cost blowouts … and politics.
Any test launch of either still appears to be years away.
But building a better rocket is barely even a start.
Some declare the is no reason why we should not have established a spacefaring civilisation by now.
But there is. There are plenty of them.
US astrophysicist and science communicator Professor Ethan Siegel is blunt in his assessment: "Despite empty political promises, our generation is in no position to go back to the Moon or beyond," he writes, adding there is a whole slew of obstacles needing to be overcome.
For example, here's just one: The Apollo missions revealed Moon dust to be incredibly adhesive … and abrasive. Spacesuit seals capable of sustaining prolonged exposure are yet to be built, let alone Moon-based habitats and machines.
That is even before we ask: Where is all the energy necessary to refine water into air and fuel coming from? And how do we even mine Helium 3? Or transport it?
"The amount of new technology that we needed to develop cannot be overstated," Prof Siegel says.
Amid the new entrepreneurial excitement to stake a claim on the Moon is the re-emergence of an old one: national pride.
China wants to prove it is more ambitious and capable than the United States. It has a step-by-step road map to put its astronauts on the Moon in the next two decades. Its rovers are already scouring the Lunar surface for suitable landing sites.
In response, US President Donald Trump has declared a fast-tracked mission to be launched within five years. Funding, however, is yet to be committed.
Once again, it is turning into a race. Not the sustainable marathon necessary to achieve anything meaningful.
"Our problem is simple: our dreams are too small, and we aren't investing enough to make our larger, civilisation-altering dreams a reality," Prof Siegel says. "The Universe almost always surprises us when we look over the next horizon, but we must make it a priority to invest in the type of exploration that will push our capabilities past our current limits.
"This is something we've chosen not to do or invest in every year since the end of the Apollo program."
Jamie Seidel is a freelance writer. Continue the conversation @JamieSeidel