Famously, the Apollo 11 astronauts deposited the first human boot prints on the surface of the moon in July 1969. It is a little less well known that the last footprints of human activity on our only natural satellite were made just three times -half years later.
Astronauts Eugene A. Cernan, Ronald E. Evans, and Harrison H. “Jack” Schmitt conducted a 12-day mission to the lunar Taurus-Littrow region, during which they collected more moon rocks and other geological samples than any other Apollo mission . On their way to their destination, they also captured Earth’s iconic “blue marble” image, which gave humanity one of the best views of our home up to that point in history.
When the Apollo 17 crew left the moon on December 14, 1972, Cernan commemorated the moment by telling Mission Control, “We leave as we came and, God willing, we will return, with peace and hope for all mankind.”
Cernan lived until 2017 but did not live to see the comeback he spoke of in that historic trip.
In total, only 12 people have set foot on the moon in rock’s multibillion-dollar history, and all of them have visited it in a single 38-month period.
Because we went from the moon
The creation of NASA has its roots in the anxieties of the Cold War and the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union. The Soviets quickly stepped out of the gate with the successful launch of the first satellite, Sputnik, and the first person in space, Yuri Gargarin. Apollo 17 came a full decade after President John F. Kennedy’s bold 1962 promise to land men on the moon before the decade was out. Not only did NASA meet its self-imposed deadline, it also backtracked a handful of times.
But many other things were happening on Earth at the time. An unpopular war raged in Southeast Asia, and civil unrest on the streets of American cities drove the evening news, not to mention the multiple environmental crises that were becoming major concerns. The US government had poured a huge amount of taxpayer money into Apollo, and the program’s popularity was waning just months after Neil Armstrong’s “giant leap for mankind” captivated the world.
“Running parallel to the social revolution of the 1960s, Apollo experienced many incredible triumphs as well as massive setbacks (cancellation of several final missions) and tragedies (Apollo 1),” writes NASA Chief Historian Brian Odom in a recent blog post.
In January 1970, all Apollo missions beyond Apollo 17 were canceled due to federal funding cuts. The threat of the Soviets in space no longer mattered to most Americans, who were facing a recession and rising inflation, harbinger of a difficult economic decade in the 1970s.
After Apollo, NASA’s focus shifted to orbit, launching the Skylab space station and a Space Shuttle program that ran for three decades until 2011.
So this Wednesday marks a full half-century since the most recent time there has been a human presence, not just on the moon, but anywhere beyond low Earth orbit.
Building a house in space
To be fair, we’ve kept our astronauts pretty busy in orbit, where the International Space Station remains one of the most important examples in history of international cooperation. Today, with European and American relations with Russia at their lowest point since at least 1991, Russian cosmonauts and astronauts continue to live and work productively together, even as leadership on the surface begins to fade. saber rattling.
Priorities began to shift somewhat once again as the shuttle was running low in the late 2000s. A new push to return to the moon and continue on to Mars has begun to gain momentum, both inside and outside NASA. . The US Congress has pledged to invest billions to build a massive new rocket, while Elon Musk and SpaceX were building similar ambitions.
Unrealized futuristic predictions from the mid-20th century imagining how we would live on sci-fi space stations and explore Mars back to the zeitgeist.
Almost exactly half a century after Apollo 17, NASA’s uncrewed Artemis I mission earlier this month traveled further past the moon than any spacecraft ever seen before, and captured an iconic new image for a new generation. of exploration, showing both the Moon and the Earth from a new perspective.
NASA and SpaceX have pledged to join forces to return a new generation of astronauts to the surface of the moon before the end of the decade. It’s a familiar promise, one that worked last time.
It is probably no coincidence that some of the circumstances of the original space race are starting to repeat themselves even today, with a new geopolitical rival, China, pushing an ambitious space exploration agenda ever further forward. China’s space program is currently launching dozens of rockets each year and operates its own space station, lunar and martian rovers. China’s space agency has also stated its goal of building a manned station on the surface of the moon, which is also a prime goal of NASA’s Artemis program.
NASA historian Odom points out that much of the Apollo program’s enduring legacy is still present on Earth.
“Federal investment in aerospace infrastructure in the Southern United States has transformed the economy of much of the region. Critical investments in university science and engineering programs have created foundations that continue to bear fruit in technological and scientific breakthroughs.”
Odom is optimistic that Artemis will produce a new round of scientific breakthroughs and engineering breakthroughs.
“Hopefully, the Apollo lessons will prove to be a useful framework for discovery both on the moon and at home. If we pay attention, I’m sure they will.”