There’s some disagreement about what the last people to visit the moon said just before they left. It could be Gene Cernan telling Jack Schmitt, who was fiddling with a camera, “Now let’s get off. Forget the camera.” It could be what was spoken after that, which NASA’s official transcript of the Apollo 17 mission describes only as “[garbled].” Or it could be, as astronaut lore has it, a few colorful words from Cernan: “Let’s get outta this mutha.”
The point is, the NASA astronauts left the moon in 1972, and no one has been back since.
When the Apollo program ended, NASA turned its attention toward other parts of the cosmos. It built space stations and shuttles, designed powerful floating telescopes, and sent machines to fly past some planets and moons and to land on others. Today the moon, Earth’s closest companion, seems almost distant in comparison.
But Donald Trump’s administration wants to go back, and soon.
“At the direction of the president of the United States, it is the stated policy of this administration and the United States of America to return American astronauts to the moon within the next five years,” Vice President Mike Pence said this week.
Pence made the announcement in Huntsville, Alabama, the city that built the rocket that lofted Apollo astronauts toward the moon. In the most significant space-policy speech of the Trump administration so far, the vice president said the United States would establish a permanent base on the moon that would someday help Americans mount a mission to Mars.