The Apollo program, with the Apollo 11 moon landing as its landmark achievement, is not one to be forgotten in the history of space exploration. On the 48th anniversary of man’s first steps on the moon, Neil Armstrong’s moon dust bag even fetched a staggering $1.8 million at Sotheby’s Space Exploration Auction.
But since astronaut Gene Cernan stepped back into the Apollo 17 lander back in 1972, no human has set foot on the moon again. The U.S. Congress slashed the budget for missions beyond this last mission in 1969, and today the future for lunar exploration remains uncertain.
What could have happened to succeeding Apollo missions if the program continued?
Apollo 18, 19, And 20
These three missions were already being planned when budget for the program was cut.
The landing sites would have most likely been Copernicus crater, Hadley Rille, as well as Tycho crater. These probes on fairly large craters would have involved the use of the rover modules on three-day missions to further explore the moon.
Harrison Schmitt, second to the last to step on the moon, even proposed a far-side landing, which NASA deemed too risky.
Previous drafts of the Apollo missions also involved Mars and Venus plans. There could have been a figure eight around Venus, heading out to Mars and then back to Venus before returning to Earth. The flybys would have harnessed Apollo-era hardware, as well as deployed robotic landers on every planet during the 1.5-year mission period.
Note that the figure eight proposal was not actually seriously considered, although crewed landings on Mars had always been on NASA’s mind.
Apollo hardware would have also been involved in several succeeding missions, including the Skylab, the country’s first space station. The space agency eventually set its sights on Space Station Freedom, a concept that eventually paved the way for the International Space Station (ISS).
In total, Apollo made 11 spaceflights and entailed 12 astronauts walking on the moon. They studied the lunar surface and collected moon rocks to bring back to Earth.
Keeping Apollo Dream Alive
SpaceX CEO Elon Musk even eyes going to the moon before anywhere else. In a recent conference, he suggested establishing a lunar colony to get people all agog over space travel once again — just like in the old days.
“Having some permanent presence on another heavenly body,” Musk said. “That’s the continuance of the dream of Apollo.”
A lunar colony has been speculated to hold an advantage over other options. For one, it is much closer to home and therefore makes supply movement faster and easier. Its ice, too, could be harnessed as a water or hydrogen fuel source.
Recently, scientists found evidence of water trapped in "glass beads" on the lunar surface. Water could potentially then be extracted from the volcanic deposits.