Why did NASA stop going to the moon after 1972?

  In July 1969, Neil Armstrong famously took “one small step for man, and one giant leap for mankind”, becoming an American hero and a cultural icon. Apollo 11 was by all accounts a success, enabling humans to finally visit our closest celestial neighbor. But while the heady highs of 1969 gave us our first steps on the lunar surface, just three years later, in 1972… we’d made our last. And today I’m answering the extraordinary question;

Why did NASA stop going to the moon?

Are you a fiend for facts? Are you constantly curious? Then why not check out other questions as well but, let’s rewind; why did NASA even get the moon in the first place? Sure, it was an extraordinary achievement, but what exactly made people so desperate to get there in the‘60s, since we’ve seemingly forgotten all about it today?

One major motivator was the Cold War. Across the ‘50s and ‘60s especially, the Cold War was fought between the US and the USSR via technological one-upmanship in the Arms Race and the Space Race. Nuclear weapons were getting more and more powerful, though the lack of any actual conflict thankfully meant that none of them were being used…so both sides decided to use their rockets for something else: Spaceflight. And, the Soviets took a sizeable early lead in the Space Race.

  • In 1957 Russia launched the first-ever satellite into orbit, Sputnik.
  • later in the same year, they sent the first animal into orbit, Laika the dog in Sputnik2.
  • The Soviet probe Luna 2 became the first-ever craft to even reach the moon in 1959…
  • then in 1961, the USSR sent the first man into space, Yuri Gagarin, and two years after that the first woman, Valentina Tereshkova.

By contrast, America didn’t send a woman into space until Sally Ride in 1983! And, back when the first two Sputniks were launched, the US didn’t even have a space program at all; NASA wasn’t formed until 1958, as a direct result of the Cold War.

Other Plans

So, after the Soviets quickly accomplished a heap of major milestones for space exploration, it was then down to the USA to do something really impressive.

They didn’t settle on the moon landing right away, though; briefly proposing an alternative plan called ProjectA119, which was an alleged US Air Force scheme to detonate a nuclear bomb on the moon.

Luckily, when NASA was formed, the powers that be decided to send people to the moon instead of weapons, after wisely guessing that the public probably wouldn’t appreciate a nuke in the sky.

And so, the race was on, and the US was in catch-up mode, as the United States government pumped as much money as possible into the Apollo program. In 1966, NASA received its biggest-ever share of the US federal budget, 4.5%. This was $5.9 billion back then, but around $43 billion today.

For perspective, NASA’s 2019 kitty equals just less than 0.5% of the federal budget, at $21 billion… So, they’re now given less than half the money they once had.

Cost of victory

In reality, the Apollo space program was ludicrously expensive, and critics of the moon landing labeled it as just one, a big publicity stunt designed to triumph over the Soviet Union. Of course, it was also an incredible achievement for science and humanity, launching an interest in space travel that remains today…

But as soon as Apollo 11 actually won the Space Race, the government started looking for any excuse to shelve it and save some money.

Overall, the Apollo space program, which ended with Apollo 17 in 1972, cost around $150 billion in today’s money. And, while the Space Race effectively ended in 1969, the Cold War didn’t, and the attentions of the government turned elsewhere.

But NASA itself, created expressly to put a man on the moon, never totally lost interest in one day returning to our closest neighbor, it only lost the state funding to do so. Nevertheless, with NASA seemingly slowing down their efforts, more and more other space agencies turned their eye to the moon, instead.

Competition

Up until 1990, all prospective lunar missions were dominated by the Americans and the Soviets, but then came the launch of the Hiten from ISAS, Japan’s former space program. After that, the number of moon missions planned by other countries grew and grew.

The current Japanese space program, JAXA, has continued to study the moon. As has the European Space Agency, and also ISRO in India.

So, on an international scale, just because we’re no longer sending people moon-wards doesn’t mean we’re not still studying it. Probes and rovers are simply a much more cost-effective and comparatively risk-free option compared to humans. They don’t need food, water, or oxygen, and there’s zero danger of illness, injury, or death.

One of the most significant current lunar leaders is the Chang’e 4 spacecraft – sent by the CNSA, China’s official space program. The Chang’e 4 is China’s first craft to land on the labeled “dark side of the moon”.

For some, the move marks the start of a New Space Race, or New Moon Race, between China and America – only this time the US isn’t playing catch-up. For others, though, there’s no longer a ‘competition’ at all, and space travel has become a much more collaborative process. Because the likes of China push the boundaries of what was previously possible.

Collaboration

NASA hasn’t simply been twiddling its thumbs since 1972. In fact, the agency reportedly does have plans to put people back on the moon by late 2024. And they did already launch a revitalized moon initiative, the Constellation Program, in 2005. Although this was subsequently canceled in 2011, again to cut government spending.

What else has happened since the curtain came down on the Apollo missions?

Well, the International Space Station for one. A project again more focused on turning space exploration into a united effort, it’s jointly-operated by five different space agencies from around the world. Advocates for the ISS say it holds significantly more promise than another moon landing ever could, given that it serves as an excellent resource to study the effects of actually living and working in outer space.

Meanwhile, the moon is still a bleak and desolate prospect, by comparison, meaning once again that NASA’s funds are more likely to be spent elsewhere. But of course, it isn’t only the ISS that NASA and the government prefer to spend their money on. There’s also that other, new, and exciting prospect that so many have their sights geared towards; Mars!

Race to Mars

The Mars Race is still bubbling away, albeit it at a much slower rate than the original Space Race did (perhaps because there isn’t a war to fuel it). And NASA certainly has aims to go to Mars, having already sent various probes and rovers to the Red Planet. Earth’s other state-funded agencies also seem bound for Mars.

But what makes this race different from any other is the power, influence, and potential victory of private companies.

Nowadays, NASA also contends with (or works with) the likes of Boeing, Virgin, and Space X. The global focus has decidedly shifted away from the moon – which now, by comparison, doesn’t even seem so far away.

Today, there are other, even more, distant dreams to be had, demanding even greater amounts of time, expertise, and money. Finally, and despite all the indications that NASA has gone cold on the moon for other reasons.

Myths or theories

There are some more outlandish theories out there.

  1. A well-pedaled conspiracy theory that the moon landings never happened in the first place. And NASA just can’t be bothered to fake elaborate lunar missions anymore.
  2. There’s the idea that humans haven’t gone back to the moon for almost 50 years for fear of aliens. Aliens that supposedly reside there.
  3. There’s the notion that the dark side of the moon actually houses a fleet of deadly extra-terrestrial spaceships.
  4. The moon itself is but a hollow spaceship primed to launch.

They’re all real theories, but not exactly real science. And the likeliest truth simply isn’t quite so exciting…

Sending humans to the moon is an expensive business, and NASA doesn’t have the financial firepower it once did.

Renewed plans to send people and probes to explore the lunar surface prove a point.

Interest in the moon hasn’t gone away– unfortunately, the money has.

And that’s why NASA stopped going to the moon.

What do you think? Is there anything I missed? Let me know in the comments, and check out these amazing posts around you…

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