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This Day in History: The Lost Apollo missions

On this day in 1972, Apollo 17’s lunar module touches down on the moon. It was the last time that human beings would set foot on the lunar surface. But did you know that there were supposed to be three more Apollo missions?

Apollos 18 through 20 were canceled. Thus, no astronaut has left low Earth orbit since Apollo 17’s crew returned from their trip.

Astronaut Harrison "Jack" Schmitt stands on the moon beside an American flag. Earth is visible in the distance.

The official NASA explanation is that budgetary considerations forced their hand, but others believe that the explanation is incomplete. The biggest expense—the hardware—was already built and astronauts were ready to fly.

It wasn’t “just about money,” a curator at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum concludes. Instead, NASA officials “weren’t sure that it was money well spent.” Public interest in space travel was declining. The Vietnam War and other civil unrest distracted Americans’ attention. Moreover, elected officials may not have wanted to risk another near-tragedy such as the one that occurred aboard Apollo 13.

The astronauts aboard Apollo 13 barely made it home. What if a future crew didn’t?

“Part of the problem, surprisingly, was NASA itself,” space historian Colin Burgess writes. “In the space agency’s public statements and literature, they had portrayed Apollo 11 as the culmination of a grand effort to get to the moon ahead of the Soviet Union, rather than as the beginning of a new era of exploration and scientific discovery.”

Perhaps the American public thought the rush to space—or at least the moon—was largely over?

Yet many scientists believe that the most important lunar discoveries were just starting when the Apollo program was brought to an abrupt end.

“Each mission became more scientifically productive as the program went on,” says Paul Spudis, a scientist at the Lunar and Planetary Institute. “[But] the simple fact that each mission was providing a great scientific return didn’t really impress very many people other than lunar scientists.”

Only one professional scientist has visited the moon. Geologist Harrison “Jack” Schmitt was one of the astronauts aboard Apollo 17 on this day so long ago. If other missions had occurred, they would have included more geologists with an eye better-trained as to which moon samples are worth collecting.

Moreover, the early lunar flights, by necessity, focused on the landing sites that were considered safer. Later flights could have angled for increased levels of difficulty. There was even talk of landing on the far side of the moon—the dark side that we never see from Earth. It would have been riskier, which left many opposed to the idea, but “that is an awfully large area to leave unexplored,” Schmitt believes.

His fellow astronaut agrees with the sentiment. “I think we should explore the Moon to a far greater extent than we're planning now,” Apollo 15’s Dave Scott said in August 1971, when decisions were being made to scrap some of the last flights, “because I can guarantee you that people will never get tired of finding new things up there.”

Nevertheless, these astronauts did not get their way. Instead, the hardware that would have been used on the final three missions was repurposed. A portion of the Saturn V intended for Apollo 18 was used to launch Skylab. The Saturn Vs that would have been used for Apollos 19 and 20 are now on display at the National Air and Space Museum and other space centers.

NASA had its eyes on a new goal: Development of a space shuttle.

“[I]t will change the nature of what man can do in space,” the NASA administrator said of the new program. “By the end of this decade the nation will have the means of getting men and equipment to and from space routinely, on a moment’s notice if necessary, and at a small fraction of today’s cost.”

What do you think? Were our trips to the moon stopped too soon? Should we have delayed our space shuttle program?

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