President John F. Kennedy hears about the Saturn V launch system from rocket man Wernher von Braun, center, at Cape Canaveral in November 1963. At left is NASA Deputy Administrator Robert Seamans. Photo: NASA

Why NASA Will Never Put Astronauts Back on the Moon

President John F. Kennedy promised the moon in his famous 1962 speech, and NASA got a huge influx of funding to make it happen. For about five years running the space agency’s budget was in the stratosphere compared to the $21 billion earmarked for 2019—peaking at twice the current amount, accounting for inflation. Getting to the moon was not cheap. Going back won’t be, either.

Chart by Benjamin Heasly via Wikipedia

Regardless, today the Trump Administration pledged to put humans back on the moon within five years. But the promise rings hollow in the context of history. Without another JFK-like commitment (and serious funding approved by Congress), the U.S. government will never put humans on the moon again, let alone send anyone to Mars.

It’s a sad truth for space exploration fans. But just look at the history of similar promises:

We got to the moon during President Richard Nixon’s watch (every human who ever visited the moon did so during Nixon’s presidency). But Nixon also presided over the end of human lunar exploration, opting instead to launch development of the space shuttle, which from 1981 to 2011 allowed astronauts to fly in circles around Earth.

Once Nixon shifted political space gears, his immediate successors held the course. Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan didn’t envision or articulate anything beyond near-Earth spaceflight during their presidencies.

Then, finally, a vision.

On July 20, 1989, President George H.W. Bush proposed putting humans back on the moon and eventually sending people to Mars. “Our goal is nothing less than to establish the United States as the preeminent spacefaring nation,” the elder Bush said.

Nothing even remotely close happened. And then Bill Clinton’s space policy focused on Earth and space science, not human exploration of the great beyond.

Not to be outdone by his father, George W. Bush rekindled hopes of humans exploring the final frontier.

“Inspired by all that has come before, and guided by clear objectives, today we set a new course for America’s space program,” W said in an uplifting speech at NASA headquarters on Jan. 14, 2004. “We will give NASA a new focus and vision for future exploration. We will build new ships to carry man forward into the universe, to gain a new foothold on the moon and to prepare for new journeys to the worlds beyond our own.”

Bush the younger laid out three goals:

1. Return the space shuttle to flight (after the 2003 Columbia disaster) and finish the International Space Station.
2. Develop a new crew exploration vehicle.
3. “Return to the moon by 2020, as the launching point for missions beyond.”

Barack Obama put the kibosh on work instigated by Bush, replacing it with a new policy that pushed the goals — both the physical one and the timing of it all, way out there: “We’ll start by sending astronauts to an asteroid for the first time in history,” Obama said on April 15, 2010. “By the mid-2030s, I believe we can send humans to orbit Mars and return them safely to Earth. And a landing on Mars will follow.”

Again, nothing happened, and in fact the space shuttle stopped flying under Obama and NASA had to start bumming rides from the Russians to get to the aging space station.

Launch forward to March 26, 2019.

“It is the stated policy of this administration and the United States of America to return astronauts to the moon within the next five years,” Vice President Mike Pence said. Trump weighed in with this statement: “This time, we will not only plant our flag and leave our footprint, we will establish a foundation for an eventual mission to Mars and perhaps, someday, to many worlds beyond.”

Sound familiar?

And just as familiar, once again NASA hasn’t gotten any new money to accomplish the lofty goals, despite Pence laying out good reasons for going. The Trump administration is playing pretty much the same game played by Bush, Bush and Obama: Promise the moon (or Mars, or an asteroid — however offbeat that might seem) because it sounds really good, but don’t do much if anything to actually support the goal.

If Americans land on the moon in five years, or ever, expect Elon Musk or someone else in the private sector to be behind it. The U.S. Government’s space program can’t even fly circles around the Earth anymore.