Why Americans flew to the moon 50 years ago and can't do it again
Many years after the last manned moon landing in December 1972, there are plenty of reasons to return humans to Earth's giant, dusty moon. But why hasn't anyone else been on the moon in 50 years? The reasons for this are depressing, reports Insider.
Landing 12 men on the moon remains one of NASA's greatest accomplishments, if not the greatest.
The astronauts collected stones, took pictures, conducted experiments, planted flags and returned home. But these sojourns during the Apollo program did not ensure a long-term human presence on the Moon.
NASA has promised that we will soon see American astronauts on the Moon again, perhaps by 2025 at the earliest, in a program called Artemis that will involve women who have never been to the lunar surface.
Former NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine, who ran the agency during the Trump administration, said it's not scientific or technological obstacles that are keeping the US from doing so sooner.
“If it wasn’t for the political risk, we would be on the moon right now,” Bridenstine said in a 2018 phone call to reporters. “In fact, we would probably be on Mars.”
Why haven't astronauts returned to the moon for 50 years?
“It was the political risks that prevented this from happening,” Bridenstine said. “The program has taken too long and costs too much money.”
Researchers and entrepreneurs have long been pushing for a manned base on the Moon, a lunar space station.
“A permanent research station on the Moon is the next logical step. It's only three days away. We can afford to make mistakes and not kill anyone,” said Chris Hadfield, a former astronaut. “And we have a whole bunch of things that we have to invent and then test to see how things will work.”
A moon base could turn into a deep space fuel depot, lead to unprecedented space telescopes, make life on Mars easier, and solve long-standing scientific mysteries about the Earth and the creation of the Moon. It could even stimulate a thriving off-world economy, perhaps based on lunar space tourism.
But many astronauts and other experts believe that the biggest obstacles to new crewed missions to the Moon are banal and somewhat depressing.
Flying to the moon is really expensive, but not that expensive
An obstacle to any space flight program, especially human missions, is the high cost.
NASA's 2022 budget is $24 billion, and the Biden administration is asking Congress to increase it to nearly $26 billion in the 2023 budget.
These sums may seem huge, until you think that the total amount is divided between all departments of the agency and ambitious projects: the James Webb Space Telescope, the giant rocket project called the Space Launch System (SLS) and deep space missions. Sun, Jupiter, Mars, asteroid belt, Kuiper belt and the edge of the solar system. For comparison, the budget of the US military in 2023 will be about $858 billion.
In addition, NASA's budget is somewhat small compared to its past funding.
"NASA's share of the federal budget peaked at 4% in 1965," astronaut Walter Cunningham told Congress. “For the last 40 years it has remained below 1%, and for the last 15 years it has been approaching 0,4% of the federal budget.”
A 2005 NASA report estimated that returning to the moon would cost about $104 billion ($162 billion today adjusted for inflation) over about 13 years. The Apollo program cost about $142 billion in today's dollars.
"Manned reconnaissance is the most expensive space enterprise and therefore the most difficult to gain political support," Cunningham said.
“Unless Congress decides to put more money into this, what we are doing here is just talk,” he added.
Speaking about Mars missions and returning to the moon, Cunningham said: "NASA's budget is too small to do all the things we talked about."
The problem with presidents
President Biden may or may not see NASA send astronauts to the moon in 2025 or later.
The process of designing and testing a spacecraft that could take people to another world easily outlasts a two-term presidential term. But new presidents and legislators often balk at the previous leader's space exploration priorities.
“I would like the next president to support a budget that will enable us to accomplish the mission we are being asked to complete, whatever that mission is,” Scott Kelly, an astronaut who spent a year in space, wrote on Reddit in January 2016. before Trump took office.
But presidents and Congress often don't seem to care about staying the course.
In 2004, for example, the Bush administration tasked NASA with finding a way to replace the old space shuttle and also return to the moon. The agency has developed a program to land astronauts on the moon using the Ares rocket and the Orion spacecraft. NASA spent $9 billion over five years developing, building and testing equipment for this manned spaceflight program.
However, after President Barack Obama took office—and the Government Accountability Office released a report on NASA's failure to estimate the cost of the program—Obama insisted on abandoning the program and instead signed the contract for the SLS rocket.
Trump has not given up on SLS. But he changed Obama's goal of launching astronauts to an asteroid, shifting priorities to lunar and Martian missions. Trump wanted Artemis to land astronauts on the moon again in 2024.
Such frequent changes to NASA's costly priorities have resulted in cancellation after cancellation, about $20 billion in losses, and years of wasted time and momentum.
Biden seems to be a rare exception to a shifting presidential trend: He hasn't played with Trump's Artemis priority, and he's also kept the space projects intact.
Buzz Aldrin said in a 2015 congressional testimony that he believes the desire to return to the Moon must come from Capitol Hill.
“American leadership inspires the world by consistently doing what no other nation can do. We demonstrated this briefly 45 years ago. I don't think we've done this since then," Aldrin wrote in a statement.
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The real driving force behind this government commitment to return to the moon is the will of the American people, who vote for politicians and help shape their political priorities. But public interest in lunar exploration has always been sluggish.
Even at the height of the Apollo program, after Aldrin and Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon, only 53% of Americans said they thought the program was worthwhile. Most of the rest of the time, Apollo approval in the US hovered below 50%.
Most Americans believe that NASA should make returning to the Moon a priority at this stage. More than 57% of respondents to a nationwide INSIDER survey in December 2018 said returning to the Moon is an important goal for NASA. But only about 38% said that lunar exploration should be carried out by people, the rest of those polled voted for robots.
Support for crewed Mars exploration is stronger, with 63% of respondents to a 2018 Pew Research Center survey saying it should be NASA's priority. Meanwhile, 91% consider it important to scan the sky for killer asteroids.
Problems outside of politics
The political tug-of-war around NASA's mission and budget isn't the only reason people haven't returned to the Moon. The moon is also a death trap - not to be trifled with or underestimated.
Its surface is littered with craters and boulders that threaten a safe landing. Leading up to the first moon landing in 1969, the US government spent billions of dollars in today's dollars to develop, launch and deliver satellites to the moon to map its surface and help mission planners scout for potential Apollo landing sites.
But what's more worrying is what's formed from millennia of meteorite impacts: regolith, also called moon dust.
Madhu Thangavelu, an aeronautical engineer at the University of Southern California, wrote in 2014 that the Moon is covered with "a thin, talcum-like top layer of lunar dust, a few cm deep in some regions, which is electrostatically charged by interaction with the solar wind and is highly abrasive and sticky. It contaminates suits, vehicles and systems very quickly."
Peggy Whitson, an astronaut who has lived in space for a total of 665 days, previously said the Apollo missions "had a lot of dust issues."
“If we're going to spend a long time and build permanent habitats, we have to figure out how to deal with that,” Whitson said.
There is also a problem with sunlight. For about 14 days, the lunar surface is a seething hellscape, exposed directly to the harsh rays of the sun. The moon has no protective atmosphere. The next 14 days are spent in complete darkness, making the surface of the moon one of the coldest places in the universe.
NASA is developing a power grid that could power astronauts during week-long lunar nights - and would be useful on other worlds, including Mars.
“There is no more environmentally ruthless or harsher place to live than the Moon,” Thangavelu wrote. “And yet, because it is so close to Earth, there is no better place to learn how to live away from planet Earth.”
NASA has developed suits and rovers that are resistant to dust and the sun, though it's not clear if that equipment is ready for launch.
A generation of billionaires who are "obsessed with space" can get there
Another problem, astronauts say, is NASA's aging workforce. These days, more and more American kids surveyed say they dream of becoming YouTube stars, not astronauts.
“You have to understand that young people are needed for this kind of effort,” astronaut Harrison Schmitt recently said. "The average age of people at the Apollo 13 Mission Control Center was 26 years old, and they have already participated in several missions."
Schweikart echoed those concerns, noting that the average age of NASA Johnson Space Center employees is approaching 60.
“That's not where innovation and enthusiasm come from. Enthusiasm comes when you have teenagers and 20-year-olds working on programs, Schweikart said. “When Elon Musk lands the rocket booster, his whole company screams, applauds and jumps up and down.”
Musk is part of what astronaut Jeffrey Hoffman called "a generation of space-crazed billionaires" who are developing a new private rocket complex to launch to the moon.
“The innovation that has been happening over the past 10 years in spaceflight would never have happened if it was just NASA, Boeing and Lockheed,” Hoffman told reporters during a 2018 roundtable. “Because there was no motivation to cut costs or change how we do it.”
The innovation Hoffman talked about is the work of Musk's rocket company SpaceX, as well as Jeff Bezos, who runs aerospace company Blue Origin.
“There is no doubt that if we are going to go further, especially if we are going to go further than the Moon, we need a new vehicle,” Hoffman added.
The desire of many astronauts to return to the moon coincides with Bezos' long-term vision. Bezos has put forward a plan to start building the first lunar base using Blue Origin's upcoming New Glenn rocket system.
“We will move all heavy industry off the Earth,” he said in April 2018.
Musk also detailed how SpaceX's future Starship launch system could pave the way for affordable regular visits to the Moon. SpaceX might even visit the Moon before NASA or Blue Origin.
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“My dream would be that someday the Moon becomes part of the economic sphere of the Earth — just like geostationary orbit and low Earth orbit,” Hoffman said. “Space to geostationary orbit is part of our daily economy. Someday, I think, there will be a moon, and this is what you need to work for.
Astronauts have no doubt that we will return to the Moon and Mars. It's just a matter of time.
“My guess is that they will go back to the Moon and eventually go to Mars — probably not in my lifetime,” Lovell said. “I hope these programs are successful.”
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