Has Human Space Exploration Stagnated After The Last Apollo Mission?


An infographic showing different proposed Mars missions.


The Apollo missions were one of the greatest achievements of humankind. But now, nearly half a century has passed after the last Apollo Moon landing, the Apollo 17. Since then, we have gone nowhere beyond low-earth orbit.

We literally abandoned the moon. Many hoped that the Apollo moon landing would be something prior to the expansion of human race to other planets, starting with Mars. But that never happened. And even if it’s going to happen, it would only be in the 2030s or 40s.

So it means that there would be more than half a century gap between the last Apollo mission and the first Mars mission that is to come. So what were we doing all these years?

Most of the time and resources were spent in orbit, building the International Space Station, the Space Shuttle, testing new technologies, studying the effect of zero-gravity on the human body and all other similar things hoping that they would be useful if we ever go beyond the Earth-Moon system in the future. However, we weren’t going anywhere, we were just staying at low-Earth orbit and preparing. It was a kind of stagnation.

There are many reasons for this: If we take the case of the American Space Agency (NASA), the funding and the support of the congress has decreased dramatically since the Apollo program. In 1970s everyone in NASA believed that after they mastered the moon landings and returns, NASA probably look forward to go beyond that.

But right after the Apollo 17, their hopes were shattered.


The Apollo Program Is Cancelled

The Saturn-V rocket that took astronauts to the Moon.

In 1972 President Richard Nixon announced the cancellation of the Apollo Program.

This maybe because the politicians saw that the Apollo program just as a way to show their technological superiority over the Soviet Union during the cold war. As of now, the United States faces no threat of going dormant in space technology and therefore they no longer need the Apollo or any more ambitious projects.

There were three key decisions that Nixon made regarding the U.S. space program, which had long term consequences for NASA. They were:

  • To treat space program as one area of domestic policy competing over other concerns, not as a privileged activity.
  • To lower U.S. Ambitions in space by ending human spaceflight beyond low-Earth orbit for the foreseeable future and not embark on another space goal requiring a massive investment similar to Apollo.
  • To build NASA’s post-Apollo program around the Space Shuttle without establishing a specific goal or long-term strategy the shuttle would support.

Most people including the ones in Congress began to see that these missions were a just waste of money (even though the space program took only less than 1% of the U.S. Federal budget). Even the approach of the public was a bit perplexed, some of them didn’t see any use in going to the Moon or to Mars, they were not interested in the possible science returns of the mission including the possibility to find any Martian life in fossilized or deactivated states. It is mostly because they don’t clearly understand it, for most of them it was just going there and planting a flag.


The Space Shuttle And The International Space Station

The Discovery Space Shuttle being taken to the launch pad.

After the cancellation of the Apollo program, NASA needed to change its strategy. The Nixon administration had a clear plan about the future of the space agency, but the ultimate purpose of the plan was not to boost human space exploration rather it was to hinder its development.

All manned space missions beyond low-Earth orbit were cancelled for the foreseeable future. As NASA should not sit idle, it was given a new lists of missions, the most important among them were the Space Shuttle Missions. Most experts say that these Shuttle Missions were moreover a mock. The design of the shuttle itself was concentrated (at least partially) on making it appreciable in the eyes of the public. The space plane model made it feel like a space-ship right out of a Hollywood science fiction movie but that is a bit too misleading. The purpose of a space-ship is to sail across space, but the shuttle was never made to do that, in-fact it went nowhere beyond low-Earth orbit.

The shuttle missions were never purpose driven, they never has an ultimate goal to achieve. NASA was sending the shuttles to orbit just because it should not sit idle.

But things changed by the 1990s, when there arose a global interest on having a new permanently inhabited space station, out of it came the proposal of the International Space Station (ISS). This was the moment when NASA’s Space Shuttles really got an objective, assembling the ISS. The role of space shuttles in the assembly and maintenance (in its initial years) of the ISS is huge.

However, in 2011 the shuttle projects were cancelled as reports showed that they were really not as financially feasible as previously taught. Some have even argued that using a conventional rocket would be more profitable that the Space Shuttles.


A Second Wind For Mars Missions

An artist rendering of the Freedom Space Station that was proposed as a part of the Space Exploration Initiative (SEI).

After the cancellation of all the human space missions beyond low-Earth orbit by the Nixon administration, the whole space industry was flooded with a huge disappointment, which the space shuttle were not able to clear away. The Space Shuttle program can never replace a Mars mission.

However, by the coming of the Bush administration their hopes got a new life. In the summer of 1989 the first President Bush announce a program called the SEI (Space Exploration Initiative) that will sent humans back to the moon and create the necessary infrastructure required for manned Mars exploration missions.

Taking over the momentum gained by the President’s announcement, NASA began to creat a plan for the next 30 years. In a short period of 90 days they drafted a detailed report of everything that was needed to get back to the Moon and then to Mars.

It was a rather indirect, over-complicated plan that had concentrated more on making use of all of NASA’s existing technology in the future missions rather than a more simple and cost-effective way to take humans to Mars. Nevertheless, the plan, which came to be known as The 90 Day Report was submitted to the congress. But the results were tragic.


The 90 Day Report

An artist concept of the proposed Mars Ship.

A summary of the report was as follows:

First NASA would triple the size of the International Space Station and add enormous hangouts as well as free-floating fuel depots, check-out docks and crew stations.

Then on the Moon, they would construct more ship building facilities, bases and depots.

Then the Moon crew would construct the Mars Ship, an enormous spacecraft, dubbed by its detractors as ‘Battle Star Galactica’. The ship would carry everything to mars over an eighteen-month flight.

Once in orbit, a small crew will descent to the surface, spend a few days, then plant a flag in the ground and go home.

The plan was submitted to congress and the estimated cost: $450 billion. It was clear to anyone with some insight into space missions that this program would politically fail.

The legislators went into stick a shock, this would be the single most expensive program for the United States since World War II.

By the end of 1990 the congress had rejected requests for all the funding related to this program.


Zubrin’s Alternative – The Mars Direct

Dr. Robert Zubrin

With the 90 day report completely rejected, NASA faced a tragic future of stagnation in low-Earth orbit for the conceivable future.

But looking into why the 90 day report failed, it is very clear that all we needed is a modified, more simple and cost effective mission plan. And that is to come from a one man, named Robert Zubrin and his team at Lockheed Martin which was then known as Martin Marietta.

Zubrin was an aerospace engineer who was deeply obsessed with Mars and is currently the president of the Mars Society and the author of the bestseller, ‘The Case for Mars’.

Lockheed Martin (previously Martin Marietta): This was where Zubrin and his colleges worked while creating the Mars Direct plan.

In the 1990s Zubrin and his colleges designed an alternative to NASA’s 90 day report, this plan had greatly lowered the cost and made the mission more simple using some key principles.

Zubrin favored launching the Mars mission directly from the Earth’s surface, using only existing rocket technology. This negated the need for a lunar base and avoided the complexity and cost for building ships in space.

He also objected to NASA’s plan for a short surface stay on Mars, a mission that would include only just a flag and some footprints exercise. For Zubrin, we were going to Mars to explore and create a new world.

To maximize the surface-stay, Zubrin proposed to use a faster flight path known as a Conjunction-Class Mission. This would enable the crew to arrive on Mars after only a six-month journey. They would then remain on the Martian surface for a year and a half. This would give them the time to explore a wide area and conduct detailed research about the planet.

Then, as the Earth return window opens, the crew would launch from Mars for a six-month trip back to home.

However, the plan had a problem. The amount of rocket fuel needed for a round trip to Mars would possibly render the launch ship impossibly heavy. However, Zubrin had a radical idea: to create methane-oxygen fuel directly from the Martian atmosphere. It was a relatively simple idea commonly use in the 1800s, like in the air of the gas light.

If this idea worked, astronauts could land a relatively light ship with empty tanks, this would radically decrease the weight of the payload to be launched from Earth.

But even then the rocket was too heavy. Therefore, Zubrin came up with yet another idea, it was to split-up the mission into two. The return vehicle would be launched first with its own methane-oxygen propellant plant, so the astronauts will be having a fully filled return vehicle waiting for them even before they ever left Earth.


The plan was named, Mars Direct and was submitted to NASA in 1991. Even though it was initially rejected, it finally got accepted in 1992 when a new administration came into power at NASA.

After a few modification the plan was submitted to congress, NASA changed the name from ‘Mars Direct’ to ‘The Reference Mission Plan’. It was submitted to the same cost analysis that tagged the 90 Day Report with a $450 billion price tag.

The Reference Mission came out with a fraction of that cost, $55 billion. So finally, NASA has got a mission plan, that is feasible and inside their technological reach.

Unfortunately, the progress being achieved by NASA towards manned Mars exploration is still very slow. Even though private companies like SpaceX have been taking over to fill the gap by proposing missions as near as 2025 or 2030, being one of most powerful space agencies in the world, NASA is expected to gain back its lost power and enthusiasm and actively be a core part in taking humanity to the stars.

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