Apollo took us to the moon in 1969. Why haven't we gone back?

It was a time when spaceflight wasn't really about space.
Robert Rodriguez/CNET
This story is part of To the Moon, a series exploring humanity's first journey to the lunar surface and our future living and working on the moon.

When Chris Hadfield rocketed up to Russia's Mir space station in 1995 for his very first shuttle launch, he estimated his odds of dying were 1 in 38. One in 38 isn't terrible, but it isn't exactly great, either.

Click here for To the Moon, a CNET series examining our relationship with the moon from the first landing of Apollo 11 to future human settlement on its surface.

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Hadfield, 59, was the first Canadian astronaut to complete a space walk. His resume is crammed with accomplishments, but he's perhaps best known for performing David Bowie's Space Oddity in the International Space Station (ISS), the low Earth orbit laboratory he commanded for two months.

He believes space travel has never been more important.

"We've never been busier," Hadfield says. He retired in 2013, but beams when talking about NASA's ongoing missions. 

Among other achievements, he points to the ISS, where people have lived continuously for 19 years, NASA's New Horizons probe that zoomed a billion miles beyond Pluto, the Curiosity rover that's actively drilling around Mars in search of life, and prospective missions to the moons of Saturn and Jupiter. That doesn't even factor in Elon Musk's SpaceX and Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin

But in terms of pure public interest, nothing has ever topped the moon landing. Around 94% of Americans with TVs tuned in on July 20, 1969, to see Apollo 11 touch down. Three years later, Apollo 17 sent Eugene Cernan, Ronald Evans and Harrison Schmitt to the moon, making them the last humans to exit low Earth orbit.

This, and NASA's dismantling of the space shuttle program in 2011, has created a "public misconception," Hadfield says, that NASA and the West have slowed down in space.

Retired Astronaut Chris Hadfield Speaks To Sydney School Students

Hadfield spoke to CNET while he was in Sydney for the Amplify festival.

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"People equated shuttle launches with space flight, as if that's the only thing that's happened," Hadfield says. "So when shuttle launches finished, they're like, 'Oh, space has been canceled.'"

It's not like NASA hasn't tried to top the spectacle of Apollo 11. In 1969, it proposed a plan that would see a Mars landing as early as 1981. Then, in 1975, the organization put forward the Stanford torus, a space colony that would be home to between 10,000 and 140,000 inhabitants. In 2005 a program to put man on Mars was put into action, but canceled four years later. 

None of these projects ever reached the launch pad, so Apollo stands out as the greatest leap humans have ever taken in science and technology.

So why haven't we gone back? To understand that, we need to understand that Apollo wasn't really about space exploration. It was about politics.

'I'm not that interested in space'

He may not have worked at NASA or understood the technology, but John F. Kennedy was the man that got humans to the moon. Under every US president from Eisenhower to Trump, space has been on the agenda. Under President Kennedy, space was the agenda.

By the time Kennedy told Congress on May 25, 1961, that he wanted the US to land a man on the moon within a decade, the idea of a lunar landing had been kicked around for years. Both Kennedy and his predecessor, Dwight Eisenhower, considered it unjustifiably expensive. Kennedy's change of heart wasn't because he was a man of science. Two events in April 1961 forced his hand.

The first is obvious. On April 12, 1961, the Soviet Union launched Yuri Gagarin into outer space, making him the first human to exit Earth's atmosphere. By this point the Soviets had embarrassed the US at every astronomical turn, starting with the Sputnik launch in October 1957 and the international publicization of the US fumbling its own satellite launch just two weeks later. In 1959, Vice President Richard Nixon conceded to Russian leader Nikita Kruschev during a face-to-face meeting that Soviets had better space technology.

The second event, in the grand scheme of interorbital space travel, now seems almost parochial: the Bay of Pigs invasion. The Bay of Pigs was a CIA-led operation that saw the US train and arm 1,400 Cuban exiles to invade Cuba. The goal was to destabilize the Soviet-friendly Castro regime, and do so in a way that couldn't be linked back to the US government. But the plan was bungled. The invasion failed within 72 hours and US involvement was headline news around the world.

Kennedy was three months into his presidency and had a double serving of egg on his face. He wanted to restore the prestige of the US and his own standing as president.

So he looked to the moon.

President Kennedy Gives His 'Race for Space' Speech

President John Kennedy giving his famous "We choose to go to the moon" speech at Houston's Rice University in September 1962.

Getty Images

"Kennedy was motivated by the Cold War, by how he thought the United States had to secure its position within world affairs," says Teasel Muir-Harmony, space history curator of the Smithsonian Museum and author of Apollo to the Moon: A History in 50 Objects.

"Kennedy's closest advisers, speech writers and confidants say that one-two punch of Gargarin's flight and then the Bay of Pigs really taught him that military intervention was not necessarily going to succeed within this Cold War context," she explains. "Instead they needed to pursue other approaches to political problems."

Political problems. For such a monumental moment in humanity's history, it's easy to forget that the decision to take us to the moon was borne out of a specific time and circumstance. It was a politician's answer to a political problem.

When the Soviets launched Sputnik, Muir-Harmony says, the world was surprised. When they launched Gagarin, the world was impressed. It gave the Soviet Union an allure, and made some question whether capitalism really was the more effective system. This reaction made spaceflight about far more than spaceflight.

"If spaceflight [was] the measuring stick for national strength, capability and output, what does this say about the United States in relationship to the Soviet Union? That was something Kennedy had to grapple with, even before the Bay of Pigs," Muir-Harmony says.

President Kennedy with New NASA Chief

Kennedy and NASA head James Webb.

Bettmann

Kennedy never hid the fact that there was a space race, but he often sold NASA's space plans as the human need to explore for exploration's sake. "We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people," he said during an iconic speech at Houston's Rice University on April 25, 1962.

This rhetoric contrasts sharply with Kennedy's tone in private. In a November 1962 meeting with NASA head James Webb, taped by Kennedy in the Oval Office and released in 2012, he explained that NASA gets a huge slice of the federal budget for the simple reason that the Apollo program is not actually about space exploration.

"I would certainly not favor spending $6 [billion] or $7 billion to find out about space," Kennedy said to Webb. The meeting saw Kennedy pressure Webb to deprioritize any NASA project that didn't directly advance Apollo. "The policy ought to be that this is the top-priority program of [NASA] and one of the two, except for defense, the top priority of the United States government.

"Otherwise we shouldn't be spending this kind of money, because I'm not that interested in space."

The Red Moon

What launched the US into a lunar landing spectacular was the prospect of a "Red Moon," of the Soviet Union planting its flag there before the US and gaining prestige in doing so. In the last few years another hugely populous, competitive communist country has sparked chatter of a new space race: China.

In 2003, China sent its first astronaut into space, becoming the third country ever to do so. After the US banned China from using the ISS in 2011 out of fear China could steal American military technology, China launched its own orbital lab, Tiangong-1, in 2013. In the same year, it landed a spaceship on the moon, and in January of this year it became the first country to land a spacecraft on the far side of the moon.

These advances have caused some to unfairly question NASA's space-exploration supremacy, says Todd Harrison, director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies' aerospace security project.

Calling the US' relationship with China a space race is "overstating it a bit," he says. "They landed a rover on the moon earlier this year. We were landing on the moon in the 1960s. They're catching up, but it's not as if they're pulling ahead."

TOPSHOT-CHINA-SPACE-MOON

China's Yutu-2 moon rover on the far side of the moon in January.

AFP/Getty Images

But that's when it comes to space exploration. Military capability is another situation entirely. In the competition between the US' space technology and China's ability to neutralize that technology, China is "rapidly pulling ahead," Harrison says.

"They are developing counter space systems faster than we're developing protection against them."

The US government relies on satellites for reconnaissance, military communication and navigation (through GPS). These systems being disabled would be catastrophic in a conflict.

"The risk of a space Pearl Harbor is growing every day," wrote Democratic congressman Jim Cooper in reaction to a CSIS report on China's increasingly powerful space capabilities. "Yet this war would not last for years. Rather, it would be over the day it started. Without our satellites, we would have a hard time regrouping and fighting back. We may not even know who had attacked us, only that we were deaf, dumb, blind, and impotent."

Harrison resists sounding an alarm, cautioning there's little to suggest China is planning any such attack. It's more deterrence than aggression, Harrison says, with Xi Jinping's government simply showing what it could do so in the event of a conflict.

In the Cold War, when space technology spoke directly to the capability of the US society at large, a hugely expensive moon landing spectacle made sense. In a 2019 "space race" with China, such a gesture wouldn't have the same effect.

"You cannot underestimate the different geopolitical context, the Cold War moment where winning hearts and minds is seen as [being] critical to national security and international standing," says curator Muir-Harmony.

"I don't see the challenge of Chinese space exploration affecting national priorities the same way that it would happen the early 1960s."

More substance than style

Though he was the initial driving force behind it, Kennedy would eventually backtrack on Apollo. The program would end up costing roughly $147 billion, adjusted for inflation, money that critics asserted would be better spent on Earth, where there was no shortage of people in need. Separately, 1961 brought the Berlin Crisis, leading to the erection of the Berlin Wall, and in 1962 the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Confronted by criticism over a polarizing, expensive policy and two incidents that very easily could have turned the Cold War hot, Kennedy wanted to change Apollo's course.

In September 1963, Kennedy suggested to the UN that the lunar landing should be a joint mission with the USSR. In private, he urged James Webb, then NASA head, to make such a collaboration work. Even Soviet leader Krueschev agreed. But the plan died along with Kennedy in November 1963.

"With Kennedy's death," wrote John M. Logsdon, author of John F. Kennedy and the Race to the Moon, "Apollo became a memorial to the fallen young president, and any possibility of changing it into a cooperative U.S.-Soviet effort disappeared."

But once the US landed men on the moon, NASA was no longer one of the country's two most important agencies. Space policy shifted with the Nixon administration, as Nixon thought spaceflight "had to be one of many national priorities, not the national priority," according to Muir-Harmony.

And so it's been ever since. In 1966, NASA received 4.4% of the federal budget. Since 1975, NASA's share of the federal budget has been under 1% every year except for '91 and '92.

Astronaut Chris Hadfield working outside the International Space Station (STS-100)

Hadfield working on the ISS, roughly 254 miles above Earth, in 2001.

Getty Images

But, as Hadfield says, space wasn't shut down. Hugely important work has been done every day since July 20, 1969. The moon landing was an inspiration to millions, because that was its purpose. Since then, NASA hasn't been tasked with inspiring, it's been tasked with exploration and learning.

And in the not-too-distant future, thanks to all the instructive work done in the last 50 years, this generation will get its own giant leap. NASA has pledged to return humanity to the moon in 2024 with its Artemis program, named after Greek god Apollo's twin sister. It's just one of many countries with lunar aspirations. China says it'll put a man on the moon before 2030, and Russia has grand plans to start a moon colony by 2040.

"Predicting is especially hard, but I would think in 10 years we should have people living on the moon," Hadfield says. "And then learning and figuring out having permanent habitation there. We'll get it wrong, probably kill some people, we'll try and figure it out, but eventually we'll sort it out, just like everywhere else."

We'll figure out the moon, advance our rocket technology and then, Hadfield says, we'll be in a position to go to Mars.

"It's a natural progression, space exploration. Space is just an adjective in front of exploration."

Correction, 8:02 a.m. PT: This story initially misstated the distance to the International Space Station. It is approximately 254 miles.