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Apollo 17: NASA’s last Moon mission and why we haven’t been back


Incredible moment Apollo 17 astronauts dance and sing on moon

On December 11, 1972, NASA launched Apollo 17 in what was its sixth and final Apollo mission to land on the Moon. The crew was made up of three astronauts: Commander Gene Cernan, Lunar Module Pilot Harrison Schmitt, and Command Module Pilot Ronald Evans. While the former two left the spacecraft and became the last men to step foot on the Moon, Command Pilot Evans stayed aboard, orbiting above them.

The purpose of the mission was to sample lunar highland material older than Mare Imbrium — a vast lava plain — and to explore the possibility of recent volcanic activity.

The mission also saw the crew tasked with carrying out several scientific experiments on board the ship, including a biological test with five mice.

Travelling to the Moon, putting humans on its surface, and safely returning them was once the prestige NASA holds, giving the US the leverage of being the only country in history to have physically landed men on the Moon.

Nothing of the sort has been replicated since. Missions have gone to the Moon, including from other countries, but no one has done repeated that feat which was once believed to be impossible.

The Apollo 17 mission

The Apollo 17 Moon mission was the last of its kind (Image: GETTY)

View of the Apollo 17 Command and Service Modules in lunar orbit.

The view of the Apollo 17 Command unit (Image: GETTY)

Why? Well, the main reason is money. The cost of getting to the Moon is unbelievably expensive, and today holds little reward to cost ratio. Before it took off, the first mission, Apollo 11, was estimated to cost around $7billion (£5.7billion) dollars. That figure in the end came out to $20billion (£16billion). Adjusted for inflation, NASA’s annual budget today is nowhere near that figure.

And there is another element, too: politics. NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine told Insider in 2019 that “if it wasn’t for the political risk, we would be on the Moon right now”.

Interestingly, he added: “In fact, we would probably be on Mars.”

Mr Bridenstine explicitly drew attention to the role politics has to play in NASA’s ambitions: “It was the political risks that prevented it from happening.

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And there is another element, too: politics. NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine told Insider in 2019 that “if it wasn’t for the political risk, we would be on the Moon right now”.

Interestingly, he added: “In fact, we would probably be on Mars.”

Mr Bridenstine explicitly drew attention to the role politics has to play in NASA’s ambitions: “It was the political risks that prevented it from happening.

“The program took too long and it cost too much money.”

With President John F. Kennedy’s history-defining plan to send men to the Moon for the first time, so with it came financial upheaval, and decades of cuts.

Commander Gene Cernan inside the Lunar module

Commander Gene Cernan inside the Lunar module, December 12, 1972 (Image: GETTY)

“The program took too long and it cost too much money.”

With President John F. Kennedy’s history-defining plan to send men to the Moon for the first time, so with it came financial upheaval, and decades of cuts.

The US Government was willing to inject the cash, but overtime, research and technological development were not viewed as important as the initial space race with the Soviet Union.

And so Apollo 11 became a political statement, and once it had been achieved, the need for more missions petered out.

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black and white reproduction taken from a telecast by the Apollo 11 lunar surface camera.

The Apollo 11 mission was a groundbreaking moment in human history (Image: GETTY)

John F. Kennedy delivers his historic Moon mission speech

President John F. Kennedy delivers his era-defining Moon mission pledge in 1961 (Image: GETTY)

The climate which incubated such desperation to send men to the Moon no longer exists — at least not in the same form.

Relations are at rock-bottom with Russia, but the era of strong-arming one another into space appears to have disappeared, according to Roger Lanius, who served as NASA’s chief historian from 1990 to 2002, and author of the book Apollo’s Legacy.

He told Space.com in 2019: “This was war by another means — it really was. And we have not had that since.”

It was a game of each superpower — the USSR, the US — trying to prove to the world which country had the future on their side, to which power the world could entrust its near political and economic ties.

Some of the upcoming Moon landing missions charted

Race to the Moon — some of the potentially upcoming Moon missions (Image: Express Newspapers)

“The Apollo days were not, fundamentally, about going to the moon,” said John Logsdon, a professor emeritus of political science and international affairs at The George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs in Washington, D.C., in an interview with Space.com.

He added: “They were about demonstrating American global leadership in a zero-sum Cold War competition with the Soviet Union.”

NASA has also suffered from being pulled to and fro by a catalogue of US Presidents.

While President George W.Bush promised that the Constellation Program would send humans to the Moon no later than 2020, the following President Barack Obama cancelled it after only a year in office.

The Artemis Program

The Artemis Program hopes to send a crew to land on the Moon by 2025 (Image: GETTY)

Mr Obama instead told NASA to send astronauts to a near-Earth asteroid, only for that mission itself to be cancelled and redirected by President Donald Trump to the country’s former ambition: to send men to the Moon again.

This is the most recent development in the Moon saga, and Mr Trump’s Artemis Program wants to send people to the lunar surface no sooner than 2025.

Surprisingly, Mr Trump’s successor, Joe Biden, has expressed his support for the program. And so for now, it seems humans will once again reach the Moon, with female astronauts on the bill for the first time ever.

Whether the mission will follow through remains to be seen. But for NASA and its enthusiasts, exciting prospects lay around the corner.





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