As the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing nears, we should remember that seven more flights to the moon were mounted in the three years that followed. One of them, Apollo 13, failed to reach the lunar surface but returned safely with its crew, thanks to the heroic efforts of NASA engineers.
However, three more missions to the moon — Apollos 18, 19 and 20 — could have been flown, but instead were canceled. All of the hardware for these missions had already been built, and trained astronauts were ready to fly. The savings of those cancellations amounted to only a few tens of millions of dollars.
An article in Seeker suggests that what was lost by this must be one of the most outrageous, bureaucratic decisions in space history.
“If the Apollo 18-20 flights were realized, school kids today could be looking at stunning photographs taken from the mountain-rimmed floors of the young impact craters Copernicus or Tycho, or the terrain on the far side of the moon, or the frozen volcanic lava flows from billions of years ago.”
Looking back, one would think that the great success of the Apollo missions to the moon would have inspired the United States to mount more voyages of discovery, not to be so anxious to bring the program to a close that it would cancel missions for which hardware had already been built.
However, the stress of the Vietnam War, racial tensions, and the efforts of some unscrupulous politicians to paint the space program as a drain of money that would better be spent on social programs contributed to Apollo’s early close.
Some in the Nixon administration were also worried about a repeat of the Apollo 13 disaster, but this time with astronauts not returning home. A disaster in space with dead astronauts might, in the White House’s view, cause the entire space program to be canceled.
Still, one cannot look at the lost Apollo missions without a twinge of melancholy for what might have been. An expedition to Tycho, for example, in the vicinity of the Surveyor 7 landing site would have imparted spectacular scenery for TV viewers, not to speak of rock and soil samples that would have advanced our understanding of how the moon and the early solar system were formed.
A proposed Apollo mission to the far side of the moon would have been particularly audacious. NASA would have had to place a relay satellite over the far side of the moon, much as the Chinese have for their Chang’e 4 robotic lander. The geology of the moon’s far side is different than that of the near side, where all of the Apollo missions landed in real history.
The hardware that might have flown three more times to the moon has become some of the most expensive museum pieces in history, except for a Saturn V that was used to launch the Skylab space station. They are monuments, not only to the grandeur of the first Apollo missions to the moon, but to a loss of will to continue exploring the moon.
The late science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke once predicted that the Apollo program would dominate the 1970s like a minor war. As it turned out, the ‘70s, with its mendacious politics and cultural rot, dominated the space program instead and smothered it and all the potential it had to benefit humankind.
The landing sites that were planned for the lost Apollo missions are still waiting for the footsteps of human beings, trained with a geologist’s eye for what samples of rock and soil to take, noting the context of each site. The planned Project Artemis will send explorers to Tycho, Copernicus, and many other places on the moon, including the South Pole, where billions of tons of water ice reside. Over a half century later, provided that America doesn’t lose its will again, more secrets of the moon will yield themselves to human curiosity and courage.
Thus, Artemis will not be a repeat of Apollo, as some critics maintain. Rather the new program will build on the promise of the old, build on it, and win greater glory, ushering in the second and hopefully much longer age of human deep-space exploration.