With the Apollo 11 landing’s 50th anniversary at hand, US lawmakers and the Trump administration are newly enthused with moon landings, directing the space agency to hurry up and get us there in the next five years.
“It’s hard to believe it has been a half century since the US won the space race,” Sen. Roger Wicker of Mississippi said on Wednesday at a Senate hearing on NASA’s moon plans. He and other lawmakers were asking NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine why the space agency stopped, and can’t easily restart, the moon landings mastered from 1969 to 1972, a time when phones had cords, computers relied on punch cards, and chunky eyeglasses weren’t a fashion statement.
From 1969 to 1972, Apollo carried a dozen astronauts on six missions to the surface of the moon, part of a program that cost from $112 billion to $146 billion (in 2019 dollars), and returned some 842 pounds of moon rocks to Earth.
“It’s really two questions,” space historian John Logsdon of George Washington University told BuzzFeed News. “Why did Apollo end? And separately, why did we stop going to the moon?”
The answers are a bit more complicated than the US running out of money for moon shots in the 1970s. For one, the striking success of the Apollo missions themselves seeded the demise of more moon landings to come.
A prime reason for the efforts, beating the Soviet Union, disappeared as soon as Neil Armstrong first stepped on the moon. “It stopped because it was over, first and foremost,” former NASA chief historian Roger Launius, author of Reaching for the Moon: A Short History of the Space Race, told BuzzFeed News. “They could have stopped at Apollo 11 and declared victory.”
Instead NASA rolled the dice by hoping that Congress would pay for shiny new things after Apollo, freeing up money for a space shuttle and Skylab, an early orbiting lab, instead of just killing the agency off entirely with the moon landings done.
“NASA said we’ll bet on the future,” said Logsdon. And it won the bet, he added: “They got a shuttle and now they have a space station, seemingly forever.” It just wasn’t a future that included moon missions, and now, it’s one that looks like a dead end.
You can blame NASA for the halt of the Apollo moon landings. But as to why we haven’t been back, Logsdon says to blame President Richard Nixon.
In 1969, even as Apollo 11’s Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins enjoyed a ticker-tape parade down the streets of Chicago after their return from the moon, the future of NASA was under review by a task group commissioned by the newly elected Nixon and headed by then–vice president Spiro Agnew. (Going back to LBJ, vice presidents have steadily been handed the space portfolio of US presidential administrations.)
A month later, the group proposed three options for the space agency’s future: one ended with astronauts landing on Mars in the 1980s; one ended with uncrewed precursor Mars missions around that same time; the least expensive proposal ended with a space shuttle and space station but a decision on Mars deferred to the end of the century. Annual costs ranged from as high as $10 billion down to $4 billion, at a time when NASA’s budget was around $3.7 billion (around $26 billion in 2019 terms, where NASA’s budget now is about $20.7 billion) a year.
The reaction from Congress, the public, and, perhaps most surprisingly, scientists was overwhelmingly negative, with a NASA science adviser calling a Mars mission “utmost folly.” It looked like too much money and too much risk.
“There really wasn’t any appetite for these more expansive efforts at the time,” Launius said. “And that was largely about cost.” NASA’s budget, never all that popular, had been under protest since 1963. A people’s march right at the Apollo 11 launch led by Rev. Ralph Abernathy had protested that money wasn’t being spent alleviating poverty.
“The crisis had passed,” said Launius. Nationwide panic after the launch of Sputnik in 1957, followed by the Soviet Union launching the first person into space in 1961, had kicked off the space race. But the feeling was that the US had pulled ahead at the finish line by landing first on the moon. “The sense on both sides of the aisle was that the money could be better spent on other priorities.”
In light of the opposition, NASA Administrator Thomas Paine faced a choice over the future of the agency, just at the moment when the agency was enjoying its greatest triumph. The agency could continue spending money on moon landings, or it could follow a new path.
NASA management in Houston, where the astronaut program was based, realized it was pushing the Apollo spacecraft “right up to the edge of its safe performance,” Logsdon said. These combined landing and ascent modules landed astronauts on the moon, barely saved the lives of the astronauts of Apollo 13 in 1970, and had made everyone nervous thereafter. That meant Apollo had to end.
Within months of Agnew’s space proposals release, NASA first suggested killing Apollo 20, the planned final mission of the program, and then announced it was extending the moon landings until 1974 in a bid to save money.
Paine next announced a halt to production of the mighty Saturn V rocket that carried the lander into space. No Saturn V meant no moon landing.
Then in March 1970, about a month ahead of the ill-fated Apollo 13’s launch, Nixon released a statement on the future of space exploration, a crucial nail in the moon mission coffin. “What we do in space from here on in must become a normal and regular part of our national life and must therefore be planned in conjunction with all of the other undertakings,” said Nixon.
“His reading of the American public, a correct one I think, was [that it was] not interested in funding an expensive space program,” said Logsdon. “He, being a fiscal conservative, was fine with that.”
Rather than enjoying its status as the favored son, NASA was suddenly competing with the likes of the Justice and Commerce departments, which approach the same congressional spending subcommittee for money every year. The space agency has since declined from its high of 4% of the overall federal budget in the ’60s to today’s share of less than 0.5%.
The Apollo 13 mission, launched and aborted a month after Nixon’s decision, did nothing to suggest the moon landings should be extended. The rupture of a spacecraft oxygen tank nearly killed the crew, who had to use their landing module as a lifeboat to return to Earth, a rescue chronicled in the 1995 movie Apollo 13.
After the near calamity, even NASA was inclined to play it safe. The attitude at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston was “Let’s quit while we are ahead, before we kill somebody,” said Logsdon. Concerns centered on the ascent rocket of the Apollo lander module, which threatened to strand astronauts on the moon forever if it malfunctioned or broke, since it didn’t have a backup.
Facing budget cuts by the end of that pivotal year, 1970, NASA canceled the last three planned Apollo flights, leaving Apollo 15, 16, and 17 as the final moon landings concluding two years early, in 1972. “The canceled missions freed up resources for NASA’s Skylab and Space Shuttle — programs that were slated to launch over the next two decades,” George Abbey, senior fellow in space policy at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy and former Johnson Space Center chief, told BuzzFeed News.
It could have been worse, Abbey added. One year later, Nixon wanted to kill Apollo 16 and Apollo 17 as well.
The normally budget-cutting Caspar Weinberger, director of the Office of Management and Budget, talked him out of the idea, arguing “large numbers of valuable (and hard-to-employ-elsewhere) scientists and technicians are kept at work,” by Apollo in a 1971 memo. “America should be able to afford something besides increased welfare, programs to repair our cities, or Appalachian relief and the like,” he added. (He really said that.)
That convinced Nixon, particularly after Weinberger promised to find money elsewhere in the federal budget to cut. And so, Apollo 17’s Gene Cernan was the last astronaut to stand on the moon, departing the lunar surface on Dec. 14, 1972.
Since then, a parade of vice presidents — George H.W. Bush, Dan Quayle, and just this March, Mike Pence — have promised to send astronauts back to the lunar surface. Somehow it never happens. The public’s attitude toward NASA might play a big part in that — people seem to like the space agency as an idea, but don’t want to fund moon bases, according to a July C-SPAN/Ipsos poll. Only 8% of the US public wants to see a return of astronauts to the moon, that poll found.
“Everyone loves Apollo. Apollo is cool, you like it, I like it, it was just a great achievement,” Launius said. “But our politicians seem to have discovered they get just as much bounce from announcing we’ll go back to the moon — without having to actually pay for it.”