Why hasn't NASA gone back to the moon? (Beginner)

As we all know, the achievement of reaching, landing and walking on the Moon is one of the most exciting adventures, ever. My question is: How it is that NASA did not make it again, at least one more time in the '80s or '90s?!

The main reason is funding - going to the moon is very expensive. NASA gets its money from the United States Congress, and in order to go to the moon again they would need to make a compelling case to Congress as to why the program should be funded. This is not something that would have been easy to do in the 80's and 90's, or today, for that matter.

I think the main reasons that the lunar landings happened in the first place were political - the United States wanted to prove to the world that it was better than the Soviet Union, which had previously beaten the U.S. in the space race. Consequently, there was a lot of public support for the missions. Eventually, however, the U.S won the race to the moon, went there several times, and the novelty wore off. At the same time, the Cold War was waning and eventually ended, so going to the moon no longer has the same public support and urgency that it once did. In the intervening years, NASA has moved on to focus on other projects, such as the International Space Station and scientifically-oriented unmanned missions around the solar system. Going to the moon would either involve shifting money away from these projects or increasing NASA's budget, neither of which Congress (or the American public) seems likely to do right now.

Personally, I don't think NASA will go to the moon again unless there is some compelling political reason to do it. For example, the landscape may change if China ever goes to the moon (as it plans to, including the 2013 launch of the uncrewed Chang'e mission with its lunar rover, Yutu). In the case of a crewed mission from China, I think you will see a renewed interest in the subject in the United States that could lead to another, more ambitious trip to the moon planned by NASA.

For more information on the end of the moon landings, have a look at Chapters 12 through 14 of this history of the Apollo program published by NASA.

Update: In January 2004, U.S. President George W. Bush proposed sending humans to the Moon again, to build a permanent base, and then on to Mars in the next decades. This program, known as Constellation, was canceled by the next administration and U.S. President Barack Obama rolled out a new vision for NASA's future in space. Instead of pursuing the set of plans and strategies laid out in Constellation, NASA is now working on the Space Launch System (a new approach to launching payloads into space, intended to be more flexible and reusable than the Shuttle system was ever able to be) and the Orion crew vehicle. These new initiatives are part of NASA's Journey to Mars strategy. Earlier versions of that strategy planned to return astronauts to the Moon as part of the training and technology development needed to safely plan a trip to Mars. However, now a Moon trip seems unlikely and a precursor mission may instead go to an asteroid. 

Clearly, this situation is unfolding and it remains to be seen how exactly human space travel will fit into NASA's future, and how the Moon may or may not play a role. A big question on everyone's mind is what will happen to funding for other aspects of what NASA does, such as astronomy, planetary science, and earth science. We will have to wait and see, but progress on returning to the moon will be slow without an increase in the budget, and many valuable programs may see funding cuts to instead fund human exploration. NASA's budget is controlled by Congress, and Congress is controlled by the public (in theory), so ultimately it comes down to what the people want to see happen.

Page last updated on June 25, 2015, by Ann Martin.

About the Author

Ryan Anderson

Ryan is a research fellow at USGS in Flagstaff, AZ and is a member of the Curiosity ChemCam team. He also loves explaining all aspects of astronomy. Check out his blog!

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