Fifty years ago two Americans clambered up a ladder into their lunar module and took off from the Moon. The date was 14th December 1972, the mission was Apollo 17 and the astronauts were Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt. At the time, as an awestruck seven year-old, it felt like anything was possible and the mysteries of space would open up during my lifetime. Instead all further exploration beyond Earth's orbit ground to a sudden halt and absolutely nobody has been back to the Moon since. As of today we've endured half a century of lunar disappointment.
The Apollo space mission remains one of mankind's greatest ever achievements, along with building the Pyramids and the decoding of human DNA. The project required an enormous amount of time, an enormous amount of money and bucketloads of revolutionary scientific expertise, all to get twelve men to the Moon and back. Even more impressively the Americans managed all of this back in an age when computers were the size of wardrobes and the Ronco Buttonneer was cutting edge technology. Today your phone contains massively more processing power than all of Neil Armstrong's onboard computers put together, and yet he still managed more with his than you've ever done with yours. Perhaps even more importantly the Apollo missions also brought us non-stick teflon saucepans.
The blurry black and white TV broadcasts sent back from the Moon made a huge impact on all of us alive at the time, however young we were. I didn't stay up to watch Neil Armstrong's moonwalk because it took place at three in the morning and I was only four years old at the time. But my dad did take me out onto the veranda at the back of my grandparents' house during the landing so that I could stare up at the distant satellite and imagine two tiny figures on the surface. I also got to watch an actual moonwalk on our TV later, presumably with commentary by James Burke, which isn't something anybody under the age of 50 can now claim. How did our promised future fade away so fast?
The Apollo program only lasted twelve years, most of which was research and development. The first crewed mission wasn't until October 1968, and the scientists then rattled through three more dry runs of various complexity in seven months flat. Apollo 8 was the first to reach lunar orbit, sending back that famous Earthrise photo on Christmas Eve which revealed how insignificant we are. Apollo 9 was only sent up to prove the lunar module worked so never left Earth orbit. But Apollo 10 was essentially a dress rehearsal for the big one and came within nine miles of the lunar surface. On its return it broke the record for the fastest human spaceflight, a record it somehow still holds 50 years later, which makes it all the more exciting that you can see the actual Apollo 10 command module in London's Science Museum.
After June 1969 NASA's long-term view drifted from the Moon to establishing a space station in orbit around the Earth. To this end they cancelled the proposed Apollo 20 mission in favour of saving a Saturn V to launch Skylab, so that was one fewer lunar trip. In 1971 President Nixon also cancelled Apollos 18 and 19, there being less money in the budget once a successful Moon landing had been achieved, and he almost cancelled Apollos 16 and 17 too but was thankfully persuaded otherwise. Against such a backdrop it's amazing we ever got as many as six crewed missions to the Moon, however pitiful a total that now seems.
Moon landings 1969: Apollo 11, 12 1971: Apollo 14, 15 1972: Apollo 16, 17
We once believed space stations would be created as stepping stones to the planets, that a permanent lunar colony couldn't be too far away and that humanity would spread out and seed the stars. Advances in technology would eventually make space accessible to all, we thought, which might not mean day trips to the Moon or holidays to Uranus but at the very least we'd end up nipping around our own planet in personalised hoverjets. But inexorably the expectation that our future lay beyond the Earth has ebbed away, and fifty years later those aspirations look even further away than they did back then.
That said, with timing that can't quite be described as coincidental, this month NASA has finally sent a rocket round the Moon and back again. Artemis 1 touched down at the weekend after spending three weeks in space, including two lunar fly-bys and a distant retrograde orbit to grab some tip-topshots of the Earth and its satellite from a distance. But yet again the program's been years in the making, its origins in the Bush administration, then mothballed by Obama and reinstated by Trump, with Biden the lucky president to reap the first rewards. That said the next Artemis flight isn't due until May 2024 and the third (with an actual lunar landing) won't be before 2025 and that'd be a incredible 53-year gap since Cernan and Schmitt were last there.
In total humanity has been present on the surface of the Moon for less than 300 hours, and since 1972 never. Apollo 17's landing represents a quarter of that total all by itself. Of the twelve men who've stood on the Moon only four are still alive, the youngest of whom is already 87 years old. Twelve more men have flown around it, half of whom have passed away, hence the number of living lunar astronauts is only just in double figures. To have flown to the Moon it turns out you had to be male and born between 1923 and 1936, so those of us who grew up in the early Space Age had no chance of following in their footsteps.
The Artemis program is designed to deliver the first woman and the first person of colour to the Moon, in part as a signal of how much society has changed since 1972. It's also a multi-agency project linking America, Europe, Canada and Japan, because getting off this planet has become too expensive for one nation to try alone. But we're still moving at a snail's pace, at least compared to the most optimistic future envisaged across decades of science fiction and in our collective imaginations. It's a damned shame, because if we could send a lump of aluminium powered by a Sinclair ZX81 to the Moon fifty years ago, imagine where we could be by now if we'd put our minds to it.