It’s Been 50 Years Since Humans Have Been on the Moon: Why We Left and Are Coming Back Soon

Famously, Apollo 11 astronauts In July 1969, he revealed the first human scratch marks on the surface of the Moon. Slightly less well known that the last traces of human activity on our only natural satellite were printed after only three and a half years.

Astronauts Eugene A. Cernan, Ronald E. Evans, and Harrison H. “Jack” Schmitt conducted a 12-day mission to the moon’s Taurus-Littrow region, during which time they collected more moonstones and other geological samples than any other Apollo. mission. On their way to their destination, they also captured the iconic “blue marble” image of Earth that gave humanity one of the best views of our home to that point in history.

As the Apollo 17 crew left the Moon on December 14, 1972, Cernan celebrated the moment by telling Mission Control: “We are leaving as we came and, God willing, we will return with peace and hope for all humanity.”

Cernan lived until 2017, but did not live to see the turn he talked about on that historic trip.

In total, only 12 people have set foot on the moon in the rock’s billion-year history, and all visited during a single 38-month period.

Why did we move away from the moon?

this Creation of NASA its roots go back to Cold War concerns and the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union. The Soviets rushed out the door with the successful launch of Sputnik, the first satellite, and Yuri Gargarin, the first man in space. Apollo 17 came exactly ten years after President John F. Kennedy’s 1962 promise to send humans to the moon before the decade was up. NASA not only met its own deadline, but went back several times.

But at that time, many other things were happening on Earth. An unpopular war has broken out in Southeast Asia, and domestic unrest on the streets of American cities has given way to the evening newscasts, aside from the multiple environmental crises that have become mainstream concerns. The US government had invested large amounts of taxpayer money in Apollo, and the program’s popularity was waning just months after that. Neil ArmstrongThe “giant step for humanity” captivated the world.

The Saturn V Heavy Lift Vehicle rocket, taller than the Statue of Liberty, was an important part of NASA history. The space agency built it to help astronauts get to the moon. “The rocket produced 34.5 million newtons (7.6 million pounds) of thrust during launch, more power than the 85 Hoover Dam,” says NASA. The Saturn V first flew for the Apollo 4 mission in 1967. The last Saturn V took off in 1973 and carried the Skylab space station into Earth orbit. This image shows the Skylab launch.


“In parallel with the social revolution of the 1960s, Apollo suffered tremendous setbacks (several recent mission cancellations) and tragedies (Apollo 1), as well as many incredible victories,” writes NASA chief historian Brian Odom in a recent blog post.

In January 1970, all Apollo missions except Apollo 17 were canceled due to cuts in federal funding. The threat of Soviets in space was no longer a catch-all for most Americans, facing a recession and rising inflation that heralded a difficult economic decade in the 1970s.

After Apollo, NASA’s focus shifted to orbit, first with the Skylab space station and then with a space shuttle program that continued for three decades until 2011.

So this Wednesday marks exactly half a century since the last time there was any human presence, not just on the Moon, but anywhere beyond Earth’s low orbit.

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The space shuttle Atlantis landed after its last mission in July 2011. This image comes from a series of landing shots and shows the shuttle’s drag channel used to slow the spacecraft. This landing also marked the end of NASA’s iconic space shuttle program.

Kenny Allen/NASA

building a house in space

To be fair, we’ve kept our astronauts quite busy in orbit, where the International Space Station remains one of the most notable examples of international cooperation in history. Today, while Europe and America’s relations with Russia are at their lowest point since at least 1991, Russian cosmonauts and astronauts continue to live and work productively together even when some leadership on the surface begins. swing a sword.

As the shuttle slowed down in the late 2000s, priorities began to change once again. A new move to return to the Moon and continue to Mars is starting to gain momentum both inside and outside of NASA. While the US Congress has committed to investing billions of dollars to build a massive new rocket, Elon Musk and SpaceX have been building similar ambitions.

Unrealized futuristic predictions from the mid-20th century that imagine how we’ll live on sci-fi space stations and explore Mars back in the spirit of time.

Almost exactly half a century after Apollo 17, NASA’s uncrewed Artemis I mission earlier this month has gone beyond the moon more than any human-grade spacecraft ever, showing both the Moon and Earth for next-generation exploration. captured a new iconic image. with a new perspective.

Featuring a large red NASA logo and a cone-shaped top, Orion illustrates why the moon and Earth in the foreground appear small in the upper corner.

Orion, the moon and Earth appear together in one photo.


NASA and SpaceX have pledged to join forces to return the next generation of astronauts to the surface of the moon before the decade is up. A familiar phrase that worked last time.

It’s probably no coincidence that some of the conditions from the original space race are playing out again today as a new geopolitical competitor, China, is increasingly pushing an ambitious space exploration agenda. China’s space program currently launches dozens of rockets each year and operates its own space station, lunar and Mars rovers. The Chinese space agency also stated its goal of building a crewed station on the surface of the moon, which is also a primary goal of NASA’s Artemis program.

NASA historian Odom points out that much of the enduring legacy of the Apollo program is still present on Earth.

“Federal investment in aviation infrastructure in the southern United States has transformed the economy of much of the region. Critical investments in university engineering and science programs have laid foundations that continue to pay off with technological and scientific breakthroughs.”

Odom is optimistic that Artemis will deliver a new series of scientific discoveries and engineering innovations.

“I hope Apollo’s lectures will be a useful framework for exploration, both on the Moon and at home. If we pay attention, I’m sure they will.”

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