More than 40 years ago, NASA defied the odds and landed the first man on the moon. Astronaut Neil Armstrong took one small step for man, and suddenly we were living in a world where it was possible for a guy from Ohio to stand on the moon. The Apollo 11 crew planted a U.S. flag on the lunar surface and were celebrated as heroes, but by 1972, the moon wasn't an exotic, exciting accomplishment anymore. After Apollo 17, NASA stopped going.
But now NASA is looking — carefully, cautiously — at heading back to the moon.
Since the end of the Apollo program, the closest the federal space agency got was when President George W. Bush created the Constellation program and announced, with lots of fanfare, that the United States was once again lunar-bound. The program lasted until President Barack Obama took office. He wasn't initially that interested in space — to be fair, he was facing down the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression — and when he finally became keen on space exploration, he wasn't down with continuing Bush's endeavor.
Obama ended Constellation and focused NASA on lassoing an asteroid and then landing on Mars in the 2030s. The moon mission was put aside, to the dismay of some and the glee of others at the space agency. (There's long been a divide between those who think NASA should be focused on the moon and those who maintain Mars is where it's at.)
But now, as the Obama administration draws to a close, NASA is apparently once again looking at going back to the moon, issuing a request for information to organizations who might be interested in flying payloads on commercial trips to the lunar surface.
This may not seem like much — it's certainly not President John F. Kennedy declaring at Rice University back in 1962 that we choose to go to the moon because it is hard to do so — but with this small request, NASA is signaling the space agency still has a hankering to land on the moon again and further explore, research and study the enormous rock orbiting the Earth just more than 200,000 miles away.
Of course, wanting and getting are two very different things. In this case NASA's lunar ambitions are still fairly modest. Depending on funding, NASA plans on using commercial-company vehicles being developed by Moon Express and Astrobotics specifically to go to the moon. NASA might eventually even become a paying customer as well, Forbes theorizes. Moon Express responded to the information request by dedicating $1.5 million for three payloads, in the hopes that committing to the trips will both make them cheaper and help spark more industry interest in the idea of private lunar exploration.
So what made NASA take this small but potentially significant step? There are a couple of reasons. Obama made it clear in a speech he gave at the Kennedy Space Center in 2010 that the federal space program under his administration was done with Constellation and was locked on getting astronauts to Mars. This ended NASA's lunar programs, but commercial companies have sprung up that are intent on filling that gap.
The Google Lunar X Prize, in which 16 teams are competing for a $30 million purse to be the first non-government entity to land a spacecraft on the moon and send pictures and video back by the end of 2017, has helped inspire people in the private sector to work on their lunar space travel skills. So the groundwork is being laid in the private sector.
At the same time, it's been clear for a long time that while Obama hasn't been compelled to take a moonshot, both space experts and a number of members of Congress haven't stopped longing to see us go back there. The attraction isn't just about politics or the potential commercial benefits either. MIT scientists recently concluded that being able to make a pit stop on the moon would provide access to lunar water for rocket fuel on the journey to Mars. It also probably wouldn't hurt astronauts to be able to have a few practice runs landing on a surface that is not Earth before they actually make the trek to the Red Planet.
The other reason NASA is dipping a toe into more jaunts to the moon right now is the impending administration change. As we've mentioned before, the presidential view of NASA can affect everything at the federal space agency, from its annual budget to the type of scientific research it does to the plans and missions it undertakes.
Of course, it's unclear what President-elect Donald Trump's view of NASA is or what he may want to support as president, as we've noted before, but they will almost definitely be different from those of Obama. And thus, Trump could be open to going back to the moon. (NASA issued the request for information in November, before the election was held, but the same logic would have applied if Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton had won.)
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Aside from all that, there's another very simple reason that NASA is considering a renewed interest in the moon. Namely, the agency is more than halfway done building the Orion spacecraft and the Space Launch System. Both items were re-purposed to be used in Obama's plan to see astronauts on Mars by the 2030s, but they were actually designed as part of the Constellation project. NASA only needs a lunar landing module to have everything necessary to get astronauts back on the surface of the moon.
But having all the pieces and the interest can still amount to nothing. Trump may turn out to have Kennedy's level of dedication to space exploration, or he could prove to be even less interested in what NASA is up to (outside of climate change research) than Obama was through so much of his presidency.
After all, NASA could go to the moon, or go to Mars. It could also not go anywhere.
There's no way of knowing, though. We'll all just have to watch, and wait and see how this turns out.