Why Did We Stop Going to the Moon and Why Aren't We Going Back?

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COMMENTARY | The 42nd anniversary of the first moon landing is an especially poignant one for a couple of reasons. The first is that no one has been back to the moon since December 1972, almost 39 years ago. The second is that no one is going back any time soon.

The former was the result of a bad, though understandable policy decision taken during the Nixon administration. Lunar missions were too expensive. It was time to attend to more Earthly needs. Besides, if we were to build a reusable space shuttle, space travel would become far less expensive, hence making things like missions to the moon and hence to Mars all that more possible.

We know now how that turned out.

The latter was the result of a profoundly horrible decision taken by the Obama administration to cancel the Constellation space exploration program. The idea in 2011, just as in 1971, is to put money into a reusable space ship that will greatly reduce the cost of space travel, with the twist being that the ship(s) would be operated by the private sector. Then, perhaps, in the fullness of time, we will be ready to explore space again.

We'll see how that turns out. Or maybe not.

The remarkable coincidence of the 42nd Apollo Day coinciding with the end of the space shuttle program has caused quite a bit of comment on the lines that the space age is over, that human space travel was just some foible we used to commit way back when. That is somewhat wide of the mark. The International Space Station still exists. The U.S. government is still pouring billions in subsidies to try to create commercially run space ships. Other countries, such as China and India, have their own active space programs.

Indeed, thanks to President Barack Obama's decision to cancel Constellation, the next person on the moon might be Chinese.

The questions arise, therefore. Why did we stop going to the moon? Why aren't we going back any time soon? The short answer to both is that our political system is not very well geared to sustaining long term, space exploration projects. Sure, the space shuttle program lasted 30 years and the ISS will operate at least until 2020. But somehow the United States just can't get space exploration, sending humans beyond Low Earth Orbit, right. Bad political leadership, even from those who would send Americans to brave new worlds, and bad bureaucratic management, even from those dedicated to making to making it happen, have surely not helped.

What if we had not stopped going to the moon in 1972? That's a good question. One can imagine the political winds blowing slightly differently to cause that to happen. Maybe someone should write a book about that.

Could we still go back to the moon? Some in Congress and in the public hold on to that dream, even as NASA and the Obama administration dither. A new president could make another course correction and send Americans back to the moon. The discovery of water and other resources suggest that such a course is strongly indicated. Maybe someone should write a book about that as well.

In the meantime, on a clear night, look up at the moon. Once, long ago, men trod upon its surface in an all too brief, heroic time over a generation ago. It awaits, silently, for the next wave of explorers, some of whom will stay and make a home to live and work beyond the confines of the Earth.

Mark R. Whittington is the author of Children of Apollo and The Last Moonwalker. He has written on space subjects for a variety of periodicals, including The Houston Chronicle, The Washington Post, USA Today, the L.A. Times, and The Weekly Standard.

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