The Return to the Moon

It has been described as one of the greatest achievements of the 20th century. Thanks to a combination of masterful engineering, the enduring human spirit and a dash of political rivalry, man travelled and walked on the moon.

Amid war in the Far East and racial tension on the home front, President John F. Kennedy announced an ambitious plan to send a man on the moon by the end of the 1960s. It was a challenge to Nasa—a gauntlet thrown by Kennedy—to take a man to the moon and to return him safely back to Earth.

President Barack Obama is in a similar situation—two wars abroad, a growing economic crisis at home—and yet he has thrown no gauntlet. Obama's cancellation of President George W. Bush's return-to-the-moon mission has caused considerable ire amongst the scientific community and the men who have walked on the surface of the moon.

The Constellation programme has been cancelled and the Space Shuttle is about to be scrubbed. In its place, the Obama administration has decided on a long-term strategy for man’s return to interstellar space travel. In this strategy, there will be more dependency on private companies and other nations to shoulder American presence in space. At the same time there are plans to adapt lighter versions of the scrubbed launch vehicles.

However, these plans are not concrete. Nothing has been drafted, or papers been passed or signed. The proposal to return to manned spaceflight would start around 2025 and an eventual flight around 2030. The plan also adds six billion dollars for Nasa to invest in younger and eager companies that will assist them into space.

Internet entrepreneur Elon Musk is offering to fly Nasa astronauts into space within three years from now. His price tag of 20 million dollars is a bargain for Nasa which already has to pay 56 million dollars to Russia and almost 300 million dollars if it sends astronauts on its own. Musk’s company represents the generational shift in space flight exploration. People like Musk, Richard Branson and Jeff Bozos (founder of Amazon.com) are the new generation of space travel, far from the zenith of Nasa’s days of glory.

The response from Nasa’s experts has not been warming. ''It is the demise of American people in space except in someone else's vehicle. This is a catastrophe,'' says Apollo 17 Commander, and last man on the moon, Eugene Cernan. Apollo 13 Commander Jim Lovell added that, “The whole thing is flawed.'' And Apollo 11 Commander Neil Armstrong, first man on the moon, responded to the plan in an email to the press that he had ''substantial reservations'' about the Obama plan.

With a volatile economic environment, combined with the American military budget on the rise, space travel and exploration have taken a back seat. The majority of the public are interested in jobs and a safe future for their children, rather than taking more steps on the moon.

Hence, it would make sense for President Obama to take such measures against space travel. At the same time, however, once the Space Shuttle retires and most of the Constellation programme is cancelled, there will also be job cuts at Nasa. In that instance, President Obama told Nasa workers, "The bottom line is, nobody is more committed to manned space flight, to human exploration of space, than I am. But we've got to do it in a smart way."

Man will return to moon and eventually take another giant leap towards Mars. Though Nasa and the astronauts of yesteryear have often romanticised reasons for returning, it is perhaps the sentiments of astronaut William Anders, who on Apollo 8 (man’s first mission to orbit the moon) took the memorable ‘Earthrise’ picture, that convey the need to return the best: "We came all this way to explore the moon, and the most important thing is that we discovered the Earth."