It’s not even fun anymore. Since we last landed humans on the Moon in December, 1972, nine US presidents have announced plans to return. Only Barack Obama didn’t make that declaration. During the most recent such speech on the Fourth of July in 2019, with TV cameras rolling, Donald Trump grandly told the celebrated Apollo flight director Gene Kranz, “I want you to know that we’re going back to the Moon very soon – and someday soon, we will plant the American flag on Mars.”
They all naturally envied the grandeur accrued to John Kennedy when he made his famous “Go to the Moon and do all those other things. . .” speeches in 1961 and 1962, even if the editor in me still winces that his speechwriters hadn’t cut out that weak “do all those other things” section. Anyway, Kennedy, unlike the others, actually backed up his plan with Congressional money. As for space-travel speeches, the best was probably Reagan’s commemoration of the Challenger tragedy when he said the astronauts had “slipped the surly bonds of Earth to touch the face of God.”
Doing better than Kennedy’s team, Reagan’s celebrated speechwriter, Peggy Noonan, didn’t even have Reagan mention or credit poet John Magee, Jr. or the fact that those words were lifted verbatim from his poem “High Flight.”
Speeches or no, aren’t you a bit dizzy from the repetitive announcements that have never gone anywhere? When the final Apollo crew returned, the world’s science writers and journalists believed NASA that the US would have put people on Mars by one decade hence, meaning sometime in the 80’s. When that didn’t happen, NASA’s officially changed the date to 2000. Then to 2020. Nowadays, NASA says they expect to have people walking on Mars in the 2030’s. It’s always 15 to 20 years in the future. Meanwhile, they still promise the Moon. Last week the newest announcement had a twist: the next lunar astronauts will include people of color.
Want to know why it hasn’t happened and why it won’t happen in your lifetime?
1. It’s too expensive. Especially Mars. The US just can’t come together to raise so much money.
2. The Moon suffers from been-there, done-that. Can anyone name the second team to summit Everest? The TV networks didn’t even live-stream Apollo 12 because they knew after the previous safe landing and return, few cared enough to watch. It took the near-deaths of Apollo 13 to create interest in Apollo 14. The NASCAR thing.
3. The remaining science questions are too nerdy. Once we learned the lunar surface supported spacecraft without collapsing, and had 842 pounds of Moon rocks to analyze, the residual unanswered questions are insufficiently sexy. I ache to know why lunar rocks have a near-identical oxygen isotope ratio to our own — it’s illogical and makes the Moon’s origin bewildering. But good luck getting the public to care.
Anyway, we’ve got a new president and another Apollo anniversary coming in a few months. Will he join the crowd and promise us the Moon? My guess is that this record has finally gotten too old to play.