The moon landing took place more than 40 years back, how come we haven't done it more often by now? originally appeared on Quora: the place to gain and share knowledge, empowering people to learn from others and better understand the world.
Why haven't we gone to the moon in over forty years? Because is was really, really, really expensive, and because we’ve had no compelling practical reason to return.
In a way, the Apollo program was all the greater because it had little practical value. Sure, fear of the USSR and saber rattling got the ball rolling, but fundamentally, we went to the moon because we could. We went because a generation scarred by war looked up and thought of the million times they’d heard the previous generation say “You can no more do [insert thing here] than you can fly to the moon,” and thought, “But I can. I can fly to the moon—or at least we as a people can.”
But also, the Apollo program sort of shot itself in the foot. By publicly committing the nation to a landing by the end of the decade, President Kennedy set in motion a political monster that gobbled up resources at an alarming rate. Development had to start while basic research was still going on. Engines had to be chosen before spacecraft designs were in hand. Critical systems had not just built-in redundancy, but whole redundant systems using different technologies in case the primary didn’t work out. And instead of designing reusable vehicles and assembling missions from multiple launches of smaller, more manageable boosters, we built the biggest baddest rocket the world has ever seen—and made it disposable.
It took half a million people and the combined military and industrial resources of the wealthiest nation on Earth to put the first boot prints on the moon. And while we were getting there, the Space Nuclear Propulsion Office, in concert with Los Alamos and the Marshall Space Flight Center, developed an atomic rocket engine called NERVA and started talking it up as the power plant for manned exploration of Mars.
It would have been awesome, but congress wasn’t about to pay for it. They strangled NERVA, canceled Apollo, and gave NASA far more humble objectives to last the next generation.
It’s a mixed bag. The impetus of the moon shot is still felt today in ways that most people aren’t aware of—not in the invention of the Space Pen or Velcro (neither of which were developed by NASA) but in the shape and capability of our industry and institutions of research and learning. Apollo helped send Voyager to Saturn, Sojorner to Mars, and Elon Musk into the space ferry business.
And now here we are. Many of the cutting edge military-grade technologies that went into Apollo are now standard aerospace tech. Many of the technologies and fabrication techniques developed for Apollo are antiquated and out of date. And now, private industry is talking about sending mankind back to the moon and beyond.
No one can say whether we’d be farther ahead or farther behind without Apollo. But I can say this: We did a great, bold, noble, and honorable thing, and we did it exceptionally well. That’s something worth honoring in this age of anti-intellectualism and anti-government rhetoric.
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