50 years since we last walked on the moon, do Americans want to go back?
When astronaut Eugene Cernan ended his moonwalk on Dec. 14, 1972, he knew there were no more moon missions planned. But his remarks before he boarded the lunar lander reflected an optimism that humans would return soon enough.
“As I take man’s last step from the surface, back home for some time to come — but we believe not too long into the future,” he began. He concluded with, “We leave as we came and, God willing, as we shall return: with peace and hope for all mankind.”
Five decades later, still no human has returned. (Satellites and robotic rovers made the trip, though.)
“One of the things that I don’t think people realize is that public support for Apollo, for human space flight, has always been a little lower than we think, perhaps, in popular imagination, especially if you ask about how much it costs. People tend to think it costs more than it does,” says Margaret Weitekamp, chair of the space history department at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.
Support for moon missions was rarely a majority opinion among Americans. Interest especially faded after the first moon landing in 1969, the Apollo 11 mission. By the time Cernan went up with Apollo 17, NASA’s budget had shrunk and Americans were more focused on myriad issues on Earth, including the Vietnam War and civil rights.
NASA pivoted to space stations and the space shuttle instead — reusable, longer-lasting crafts than the capsules used for Apollo. Public interest in space has waxed and waned based on missions. But now the moon is back on the agenda: Artemis I splashed down on Dec. 11. It’s the first of a series of missions that could, in the next few years, put a person back on the moon.
But has the public interest in moon missions changed?
“We’re living in a new space craze right now,” says Weitekamp, who has just published the book “Space Craze: America’s Enduring Fascination with Real and Imagined Spaceflight.”
The Artemis mission and its plan to put the first woman and first astronaut of color on the moon, as well as rocket launches from Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic, and SpaceX have stoked that excitement. So have missions happening in a galaxy far away.
“Enthusiasm about space flight draws not only from real achievements but also from the fiction that people are watching and enjoying,” she says. “I think we’re living in a golden age of ‘Star Trek,’ ‘Star Wars,’ ‘The Expanse,’ and creative visions of what it means to imagine going into space.”
Robert McCall’s design of the Apollo 17 patch has the eagle’s wing overlapping the moon to signify humanity’s connection to the moon after the Apollo missions. “You see Apollo looking forward,” curator Margaret Weitekamp says. “The hope in 1972 was that there would be a return.”
As the museum’s new exhibit Destination Moon opened on a recent morning, tourists filtered in, many wearing Star Wars shirts and other gear supporting sci-fi shows. One visitor strolled past a case showing the fender of the lunar rover from Apollo 17 while wearing a Baby Yoda bag (yes, his name is Grogu, please don’t email us).
Other visitors, though, were drawn by the science facts on display.
“It’s kind of what inspired me to become an engineer,” says Derek Chan, who works with satellites in the defense industry. He stayed up to watch the Artemis launch this fall and is looking forward to people going back, even though the moon isn’t the most appealing body in the sky.
“To be honest, I don’t think there’s really too much on the moon. But being able to go back to the moon…hopefully build a moon base up there. Later on when we go to Mars, there might be some lessons learned,” he says. “It’s a better way of spending taxpayer’s money, I would say.”
“It’s a great investment” says visitor Chris Healy, who described himself as a “conservative Republican tightwad” as he stood a few feet from Neil Armstrong’s spacesuit. He grew up watching moon missions on TV, and thinks they serve as an inspiration.
There’s likely a bias in the halls of a museum dedicated to space, but outside of the museum, public support for NASA spending has climbed steadily for the last 20 years, according to Gallup. Pew finds that Americans want their country to be a leader in space exploration, with NASA playing a role in addition to the private companies that have helped to spur excitement.
Online, new telescopes spark viral moments and missions draw hundreds of thousands of followers on social media.
Of course, more than 600 million people watched the original moon landing, but what event draws 600 million people any more? Weitekamp points out that airplanes and even hot air balloons used to draw crowds of onlookers, and now space launches have become less of an event.
“I think that’s a part of the industry and the endeavor maturing and the public reaction being a little more niche than it is widespread,” Weitekamp says.
At the museum, even old launches are inspiring a new generation.
“We gotta see the moon stuff,” Thomas Bille, from Houston, told his kids as they walked through the museum lobby. Daughter Savannah, 7, hopes to be among those to go to the moon. “I really like the solar system and planets,” she says.
If all goes according to plan, people will be back on the moon before Savannah turns 10. She also has plans to go beyond.
“I’ve always wanted to go to Saturn,” she says.
This article was originally published on WBUR.org.
Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.