Apollo astronauts had successfully explored and collected rocks that are still used by scientists today; but NASA managers knew this program could no longer continue.
NASA Administrator Thomas Paine had to make some hard choices due to tightened budgets and decisions taken over the last two years.
The Apollo program was an ambitious undertaking involving millions of people between 1961 and 1972, lasting from 1961 until Yuri Gagarin made his space flight on April 3rd 1962. Although many factors played into its success, President Kennedy played a pivotal role when he announced the project during his 1962 “We Choose to Go to the Moon” speech, in response to Soviet launch of Sputnik satellite and space flight by Yuri Gagarin earlier that year. To assert US dominance globally and prove they still controlled space travel. President Kennedy saw moon landing as an opportunity that provided US leadership demonstration.
Once NASA achieved their goal of landing on the Moon, political motivation for human spaceflight quickly dissipated. According to Smithsonian Apollo historian Teasel Muir-Harmony, science and exploration weren’t at the core of NASA manned missions – they were simply sideshows; rather they served only to further political prestige.
Politicians were no longer keen to fund a project that wasn’t providing tangible results and was expensive; moreover, as the Cold War subsided, so too did America’s desire to prove itself as the dominant power.
NASA was already grappling with keeping their research and development budget within budget; Apollo would add further burdens, with its rising costs becoming unmanageable and adding seven astronauts would require substantially increasing it further.
After the excitement of Apollo 11, Congress began cutting NASA’s budget. The first reduction came in January 1970 when Apollo 20 was cancelled, followed by NASA administrator Thomas Paine cancelling all three remaining manned missions to effectively kill off the Apollo program.
Apollo 17 launched in December 1972 and successfully returned astronauts Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt back to earth as well as Ronald Evans to lunar orbit – marking a half century since no human missions returned from orbit – but its lessons remain relevant today as both NASA and private space companies plan to send humans back into space.
Since 1957 when Sputnik 1 first beeped on its launch pad, the United States and Soviet Union had been engaged in an epic Space Race. Both sides pledged to beat one another to the moon, although success would come at a high cost.
As NASA continued its Apollo program, lawmakers, including some science advisors to President Kennedy, began criticizing how too much money was being spent on it. Critics argued that money spent on NASA could be put to better use elsewhere such as alleviating poverty or meeting other national needs.
At a time when America was still recovering from the Great Depression, many citizens weren’t enthusiastic about large government programs spending their tax dollars; yet Apollo stood out as a significant government spending effort that many saw first-hand.
Even after Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin set foot on the moon, public support for their mission remained mixed. According to a 2023 poll by the Smithsonian Institution, only 53% of Americans felt going back was worth its costs.
The Apollo project became increasingly hazardous as time progressed, its rockets and lunar modules stretched to their limit by the time Apollo 13 crashed onto the surface of the moon in 1970 and barely saved their astronauts’ lives. Realistically, its crew needed a break before trying again later. Therefore it became wiser to end this particular spacecraft mission than continue it further.
NASA administrator Thomas Paine called a meeting at Johnson Space Center in March 1972 to address how the agency should transition away from Apollo and chart a different course for exploration. According to historian Roger Launius’ records, this gathering was quite contentious as participants expressed displeasure with not having clear guidance in place regarding whether lunar landings should continue or change course entirely.
Managers at Marshall and Johnson Space Flight Center had realized that they were operating nearing their Apollo spacecraft’s safe performance limit, so they needed a way to reduce costs and risks. To this end, they agreed to review original cost data from congressional budget narratives from 1960s as well as search their record collections for any information regarding how it had been planned and executed.
Apollo missions weren’t only costly; they were also risky. There were several harrowing moments that nearly cost astronauts their lives; most notably was a fire in Apollo 1 during launch rehearsal, which claimed three astronauts’ lives — Roger Chaffee, Ed White and Virgil “Gus” Grissom — while NASA struggled to identify and remedy potential points of failure before reaching their Moon mission goal and facing large funding cuts and reduce research based space missions as priorities.
NASA had difficulty convincing American public that their Moon Landing success was worth investing $25 billion into. Polling at the time revealed many felt otherwise and did not believe the moon landings justified such costs.
Some people suspected the landings were staged, based on claims that the spacecraft hadn’t traveled far enough from Earth to reach the lunar surface and would have been exposed to lethal radiation in the Van Allen belts, giant doughnut-shaped areas around Earth that contain high energy charged particles from solar wind. Scientists were aware of these belts, concerned about their effects on human space travellers; consequently they built their spacecraft with an aluminium shell to minimise time spent within these belts.
As well as disagreements among astronauts and controllers, other issues involved disagreements between astronauts themselves and mission controllers. Apollo 7 astronaut Walter Schirra faced difficulty when trying to clear his nose in space due to zero gravity’s effect on nasal mucus drainage; blowing unsuccessfully failed at clearing his nasal passages; in order to solve this problem he brought along nasal decongestants for use upon returning home; eventually becoming both an Actifed pitchman as well as commentator alongside Walter Cronkite alongside Walter Cronkite alongside TV commentator Walter Cronkite alongside commentator Walter Cronkite alongside television commentator Walter Cronkite alongside television commentator Walter Cronkite alongside commentator Walter Cronkite, along with acting commentator Walter Cronkite alongside Walter Cronkite. Other astronauts on missions had issues from disagreement over television programming to complaints over food.
The Apollo program was an astounding engineering achievement. Employing over 400,000 managers, designers, scientists, technicians and medics to design, build and operate hardware which enabled astronauts to reach the moon at great cost to themselves – yet gaining widespread public support and pride along its journey – the Apollo programme emerged from an unusual environment: that of Cold War space race between America and Soviet Union where both nations raced each other to launch satellites into orbit as quickly as possible before them in order to demonstrate technological superiority; Americans worried Soviets could launch satellites before them which drove them to accelerate their program to ensure technological superiority over their adversaries – fearful Americans felt this competition encouraged them to accelerate their program in order to gain technological superiority over rivals as soon as possible so as not to fall behind them technologically!
Once they had achieved their objective of landing on the moon, however, US government no longer saw the need for further missions. Furthermore, mechanical issues plagued Apollo 13 crew and reduced public interest further.
As a result, three more Apollo missions were cancelled, leading to hardware intended for them now sitting in museums. Furthermore, their cancellation reflected competition with other NASA priorities; specifically the development of the space shuttle (approved by presidential task force in 1969) which began taking away attention away from lunar programs like Apollo.
As it was believed that the moon no longer offered significant scientific advantages over Earth, any planned missions to enhance our understanding of lunar environments by collecting more rock samples and conducting new experiments were cancelled as were efforts to establish infrastructure for a permanent lunar base.
Apollo has given us many of the technologies that are now part of everyday life, such as microwaves, the Internet, air conditioning and more. The Apollo programme led to over 6,300 spinoff technologies resulting from it; you can view an exhaustive list on NASA’s spinoff website.
After an extended absence, the United States is once more planning to return to the moon with Artemis program. Based on lessons learned during Apollo missions and designed to make sustainable lunar missions possible, its key success factor will be extracting resources from lunar soil; engineers must develop technologies capable of turning locked-in water and oxygen from lunar ice into fuel for rocket engines.