Air Canada says it has accepted 2300 reservations for flights to the Moon in the past 5 days. - Cape Canaveral, July 24th, 1969, in the morning news report to the crew of Apollo 11.
After the successful launch, journey and lunar landing, Apollo 11 safely touched down in the Pacific Ocean on July 24th, 1969, the final successful note to one of the greatest adventures in human history. Apollo 11 was the touchstone of the entire space program, and on that day, the three astronauts on board, and the entire NASA workforce fulfilled President John F. Kennedy's mandate that had been issued eight years ago. Man had landed on the moon, and returned safely to earth, with five months to spare. Between 1969 and 1972, NASA sent six additional missions to the moon, one of which ultimately failed. On December 14th, 1972, Astronaut Gene Cernan became the last human being to set foot on the moon.
In the thirty-seven years since we last stepped on another worldly body, we have yet to break out of lunar orbit, despite the fantastic momentum that had been built up in the years preceding the Apollo program, and bringing the constant question: When will we return?
There are two major reasons for the lack of further lunar missions, one folding into the other. The first is the very nature of Kennedy's mandate. We would go to the moon, land there and return safely by the end of the decade. As far as a mission goes, it translates well into the American public - there is a where and a when, and that was it. Following the Apollo 11 mission, public interest in the lunar missions waned to the point where major news networks refused to air the crew's broadcast during Apollo 13. Far fewer people took interest in the later missions, and the planned missions for Apollo 18, 19 and 20 were scrapped, despite having the hardware, crews and support staff in place.
This lack of interest, and extra hardware moved NASA to a different direction. In 1972, preliminary funding for the Space Shuttle orbiter was announced, and in 1973, Skylab, the US's first space station, was launched, the result of the Apollo Applications Program, which was designed to modify Apollo hardware to fit other uses. With the launch of Skylab, and the move towards orbital shuttles, NASA transitioned from an agency designed to break barriers and explore new ground (figuratively) to one that was designed towards scientific endeavor and research. This mode of thinking provides an impossible environment for the planning of the types of missions that lunar or even eventually, Martian missions require.
Mercury, Gemini and Apollo were carried out in a highly logical, stepping-stones manner that allowed us to reach the moon. Unfortunately, it did not allow for us to continue returning to the moon after the initial missions were carried out. An Apollo-type program is needed for our eventual return - new rockets are under construction, as well as a new lander and spacecraft, with the intention to return to the lunar surface by 2019 with the Orion 15 mission.
What is lacking is the proper environment in which space travel and lunar missions can thrive. We reached the moon because we were attempting to beat the Russians to the surface, ending the Space Race readily. It was competition, with a sense of national pride and honor at stake that allowed for the massive budget and organization that allowed NASA to go to the moon. Now, with things such as healthcare, terrorism and other major national issues crowding the legislative agenda, there is little desire to go to the moon, it would seem, as there are pressing matters here on earth to do.
I'm often skeptical of such assertions. While yes, a lunar mission is a costly affair, (the Apollo project cost $135 billion, adjusted), the current war in Iraq has cost $669 Billion dollars. That sort of money could easily be used to spend on health care, paying down the national debt and other notable things, but it is the projects such as this that make the United States what it is, and provides a reason for people to continue to imagine, and to provide something absolutely splendid for the country to point at and look upon with pride. Apollo was an absolutely stunning national achievement, one that makes everything that we do worth living for, and to defend.
We will return to the moon, and we will eventually travel to Mars, to Io, and Titan, whether brought there by NASA or by private enterprise, but it is within human nature to travel and to explore.