The Nasa Kennedy Space Centre in Florida. Picture: 123RF/ROBIN RUNCK
The Nasa Kennedy Space Centre in Florida. Picture: 123RF/ROBIN RUNCK

There is a familiar question asked of politicians, entrepreneurs and innovators: if you were to do it all again, what would you do differently?

At Nasa headquarters, they’re fielding almost the opposite inquiry. Why don’t you just do it the same? If you managed to put Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the Moon five decades ago, why is it so hard to do it now?

As the agency’s head, Jim Bridenstine, puts it wryly: “If you’re wondering why Nasa doesn’t simply dig out the Apollo lander designs to put humans on the Moon by 2024, you’re not alone.” Bridenstine’s problem is not an abstract one: 2024 is now an official deadline.

No woman has ever been to the Moon, most of Earth’s inhabitants have never watched a crewed lunar mission live, and no other nation but the US has been critically involved in one. No one at all has been to the Moon since 1972. Imagine if, after Columbus’s voyage to the Americas, no European had repeated the journey for half a century.

Among space enthusiasts, there are two camps: those who think Nasa returning astronauts to the Moon is a good idea, and those who don’t. And then there is Donald Trump, who seems to agree with both of them.

In December 2017, the president reinstated human lunar missions as a Nasa priority (Barack Obama had cancelled the programme, leaving the agency to focus on putting humans on asteroids). In March this year, Trump accelerated Nasa’s timetable by four years, to 2024. “Under my Administration, we are restoring @NASA to greatness and we are going back to the Moon, then Mars,” he later tweeted.

In some ways, the challenge is more complex than it was in the 1960s. Expectations as to what a human lunar mission should achieve have increased. So too has awareness of the health risks of sending humans to the Moon, particularly from radiation

Within weeks, however, the president seemed to contradict himself: “For all of the money we are spending, Nasa should NOT be talking about going to the Moon — We did that 50 years ago,” he tweeted. “They should be focused on the much bigger things we are doing, including Mars (of which the Moon is a part), Defense and Science!”

That phrase — “Mars (of which the Moon is a part)” — was widely mocked, but it does actually reflect the priorities of space experts. Mars is now what gets people excited. The Moon is seen as the first step, rather than the last.

John F Kennedy’s order was to go to the Moon, and come back. Nasa’s promise today is to go to the Moon — “to stay”. It also promises “a space economy built on mining, tourism and scientific research”.

Entrepreneurs, too, want to do more than just visit the Moon. Amazon’s Jeff Bezos says humans must relocate heavy industry there, to save Earth’s resources. SpaceX’s Elon Musk is developing a large rocket that he has said will fly humans to Mars by 2024. (During its closest approach, Mars is 200 times further from the Earth than the Moon is, and Musk has a habit of missing deadlines.)

Returning astronauts to the Moon is therefore an odd mission for Nasa: it is not exactly new, not exactly the same. Yes, technology — notably computing power — has advanced dramatically since Apollo, when engineers relied on slide rules for their calculations. But in some ways, the challenge is more complex than it was in the 1960s. Expectations as to what a human lunar mission should achieve have increased. So too has awareness of the health risks of sending humans to the Moon, particularly from radiation.

There is also less political willingness to fund Nasa, whose share of the federal budget has shrunk from more than 4% to 0.5% since the mid-1960s.

Some experts wonder if Trump is actually setting Nasa up to fail. Kennedy gave the agency nearly nine years to reach the Moon; Trump has given it barely five. “There are many ways to go to the Moon,” Wernher von Braun, the rocketry genius who went from serving the Nazi war machine to driving the Apollo programme, told US Congress in 1964. “It is a question of time, cost, confidence factors, and so forth.”

We know one key element will be different next time: at least one of the astronauts will be female. Nasa has named the programme Artemis, after the twin sister of Apollo in Greek mythology.

How else will the next mission compare with 1969? In five years, will the world again be celebrating human achievement — or lamenting political gridlock?

“The fundamental question,” Roger Launius, formerly Nasa’s chief historian, tells the FT, “is not the when, or with what methodology. It’s the why.”

To understand why Nasa cannot simply dust off its Apollo plans, you need to start with politics. In May 1961, when Kennedy announced his goal of putting a man on the Moon, the primary aim was a dramatic statement of US ability. Six weeks earlier, the Soviet Union had put the first person in space — the latest in a string of space-race firsts that began with Sputnik in 1957.

The Moon was a sufficient counter. Nasa did not seek broader goals. It trimmed its other programmes — for example, delaying plans to land a life-seeking probe on Mars. And Apollo’s components were not built to endure. “They were just barely able to get a crew there and back,” says John Logsdon, the former director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University.

You can only send humans to the Moon for the first time once. In 1969, it was a show of US power. In 2024, it would not be. It would not satisfy the space community. Going to the Moon is no longer a Moonshot.

The Trump administration has therefore endorsed a broad agenda, which will shape the engineering challenge. In March, US vice-president Mike Pence set out three goals for the lunar mission: to return to the Moon; to establish a permanent presence; and to develop technology to take US astronauts to Mars and beyond.

The context of the mission is also key: Apollo was the product of cold-war rivalry. “That is a fundamental difference. We’re not afraid of China the way we feared the Soviet Union,” says Launius. In fact, Kennedy’s instinct had been to collaborate with the Soviets; but when Nikita Khrushchev rejected the idea, the US decided to go it alone.

In contrast, Trump rarely wants international collaboration, but the practice is now embedded in space programmes, thanks to the International Space Station (ISS). Since 2012, the European Space Agency (ESA) has been charged with building the module that supplies water, oxygen and other essentials for Nasa’s Orion, the spacecraft that is likely to carry astronauts to the Moon and Mars.

If the US went it alone, it would have little chance of putting astronauts on the Moon by 2024, says Philippe Berthe, an ESA programme manager.

There is another big difference between Kennedy and Trump. In 1961, Kennedy set a deadline of “before this decade is out”. This timeframe meant that he would not necessarily be president when any mission took place (in the end, Richard Nixon was). It also risked the Soviets getting there first, perhaps in 1967 to mark the 50th anniversary of the Russian revolution.

Trump thinks in presidential terms, not decades. In 2017, he said, perhaps jokingly, that he wanted an astronaut on Mars “in my first term or at worst in my second term”. 2024 would be the penultimate year of his second term. It would also beat China’s stated timeline for putting a person on the Moon — and China’s programme is rumoured to be behind schedule. But Trump’s tight deadline limits the potential for innovation.

“We do not have time or funds to build unique, one-of-a-kind systems,” William Gerstenmaier, a senior Nasa official, said recently. The agency’s biggest rocket — Boeing’s troubled Space Launch System (SLS) — will use some of the same engines as the Space Shuttle. Blake Rogers, an engineer at the Aerospace Corporation, a government-funded research agency, told the FT: “2024 is really soon. So there’s not a lot of brand-new technology.”

The next mission to the Moon will therefore be a compromise — a search for enduring technology, which must nonetheless provide a quick win.

Technically, one of the biggest differences between Apollo and Artemis is the route. In the 1960s, when Nasa just needed to get to the Moon and back, its engineers considered firing a rocket straight to the surface. In the end they decided instead to fire a spacecraft into lunar orbit, from which two of three astronauts could descend.

Nasa now rejects this approach, because it would not leave the infrastructure for future missions. Its new plan involves creating a space station, called Gateway, which will permanently orbit the Moon. Astronauts could spend months there, performing science experiments and testing equipment.

They would be able to descend to any point on the Moon, rather than just the equatorial regions that Apollo explored. Ultimately, Gateway could be a stepping stone to Mars.

It is a sizeable endeavour. One proposed design for Gateway, from the Sierra Nevada Corporation, would give the astronauts roughly as much floorspace as a 185m2 home. (Nasa now often relies on contractors’ innovation, unlike in the 1960s, when it was leading the incipient space industry.)

The station could host astronauts for 1,000 days, allowing them to experience life outside low-Earth orbit for as long as it would take them to travel to Mars, while also being able to return to Earth quickly in case of emergency.

Critics compare Gateway to a flight stopover, which will slow down progress to the Moon and absorb billions of dollars that could otherwise be used for Mars mission prototypes. Buzz Aldrin has called it “absurd”. SpaceX’s plans for the Moon and Mars ignore it completely.

In general, Nasa’s argument that the Moon is the ideal testing ground for Mars has left many unconvinced. “Is it going to take longer to go to Mars because we’re focusing on the Moon? Yes, absolutely,” says Casey Dreier, chief advocate at the think-tank Planetary Society. “Will they build [Artemis] with Mars in mind, or will they shave off the extra margin to keep the costs down so we can meet the immediate goals? We’re about to find out.”

From 2024, Nasa will explore turning the Moon’s ice into fuel. Eventually it wants the Moon to become humanity’s ‘deep space laboratory’, where astronauts can trial technologies and examine the Earth’s past

What Artemis can do is draw from years of technological advances. Apollo used no solar power; solar panels will help to produce electricity for Orion and Gateway, potentially saving huge amounts of fuel. Carbon composites will make some parts lighter.

And IT has changed beyond all recognition. It is often pointed out that the Apollo spacecraft had less computing power than a smartphone. Any serious calculations had to be done by ground control, leading to the frantic scenes dramatised in the film Apollo 13.

“If we lose communications for whatever reason, the crew has all that on-board processing capability to get themselves home. For Apollo, they were really, really dependent on the ground,” says Rob Chambers, human space flight strategy director at Lockheed Martin, which has the contract to design Orion. In future, you may be able to solve a problem without calling Houston.

Today, Orion’s processing power will still be below 500MHz — significantly less than a MacBook. There will be no touchscreens, partly because they are incompatible with the astronauts’ thick gloves. Nonetheless, the computing power is sufficient that the astronauts will be unlikely to miss their intended destination on the Moon by 6.4km — as Armstrong and Aldrin did. When they return to Earth, they will not have to land in the middle of the Pacific Ocean; instead, they will have sufficient control to land near an island off northern Mexico.

Computing has made design more efficient, and reduced the need for expensive testing. “When I design a spacecraft, it takes me an afternoon. It would have taken 10 people a month because I can use a computer, and they couldn’t,” says Rogers, of the Aerospace Corporation.

In 2005, Nasa engineers redesigned the Apollo landers, and brought down the mass of the spacecraft by about a tonne. The agency says most of the difference came from “lighter avionics and batteries”. Yet technology is not everything. “It’s just amazing what they were able to do with slide rules,” says Chambers of Lockheed Martin. “More often than not we have concluded in the end the solution that Apollo used was the right solution.”

In many ways, Artemis will be less revolutionary than might be expected. “The physics has not changed,” space experts say. Orion will look quite similar to Apollo. It will be sent up on SLS, a rocket that has a similar shape, size and lift to the Saturn V, used in the Apollo missions.

That rocket will still use fossil fuels; hopes for nuclear rockets have faded. “Rocketry today is about where aircraft were around 1940,” says Launius, Nasa’s former chief historian. Even Musk, the pioneer of electric cars, sees no immediate path to electric rockets.

What Musk and Bezos are promising is re-usable rockets. These may be deployed to take supplementary objects to Gateway, though they are still a work in progress.

Boeing, whose rockets are not re-usable, says it is “decades away” from heavy-lift duties; the SLS can carry far bigger loads than SpaceX’s current biggest rocket, the Falcon Heavy. Nasa wants other parts of the mission to be re-usable — particularly the landing craft.

A Mars mission would require more efficient recycling of water and oxygen, deeper understanding of the effects of space on human health and an ability to use materials found in space. We know the Moon has ice, which could, in principle, be broken down into hydrogen and oxygen and used for fuel. But we don’t know if the ice deposits are in a usable form — for example, in contiguous deposits rather than scattered over large areas. And who owns the ice, anyway?

From 2024, Nasa will explore turning the Moon’s ice into fuel. Eventually it wants the Moon to become humanity’s “deep space laboratory”, where astronauts can trial technologies and examine the Earth’s past. (Since the 1970s, planetary scientists have come round to the view that the Moon was formed from the debris thrown up when the young Earth collided with another fledgling planet.)

But it will not be ready for 2024. The initial mission will involve only a scaled-down version of Gateway because of the time constraints. Nasa has given itself until 2028 to establish “sustainable missions”. “What’s going on is a little deceptive,” says Logsdon, of George Washington University. “[The 2024 mission] is basically a one-off thing.”

As for a “Moon village” — a stated aim of the ESA — humans first have to learn how to survive a lunar night, the two-week period when temperatures drop as low as minus 190ºC. “Closed-loop recycling” — where all the astronauts’ waste is re-used — is still an ambition rather than a reality.

Without re-usable rockets, closed-loop recycling or a clear blueprint for keeping humans on another planetary surface, the next lunar mission will have more in common with Apollo than it will with any missions to create a future colony on the Moon or Mars.

As he prepared for Apollo 11’s lift-off, Neil Armstrong thought he had a 10% chance of dying during the mission, and a 50% chance of not walking on the Moon. “There was still a debate about if you stepped on to the Moon, would you step into 10 feet of dust?” says former Nasa official Scott Hubbard.

The entire mission was vulnerable to a single-point failure: if the service module’s engine had failed, for example, there was no back-up.

Nasa’s whole attitude to risk has now changed. Until recently, each system was built to tolerate any two faults. This is now seen as a blunt approach, treating all components as equally important. So Nasa instead tries to limit the probability of failure. The chance of losing SLS and Orion on its first mission is one in 140, according to the agency’s analysis.

Nasa has also become less tolerant of risks to human health. Jim Bridenstine, the agency’s administrator, notes that in Apollo “we took many unknown risks with early lunar exploration”.

“We now understand the greatest risk from the soil is how inhaling the small, sharp, glass-like dust particles can lodge in the lungs, creating acute and long-term risks to astronaut health,” he writes, in a forthcoming blog that Nasa shared with the FT. “Apollo systems were designed to maintain breathing air with up to 1% carbon dioxide, but today’s human health experts recommend 0.25%.”

Apollo’s astronauts were also fortunate not to suffer more from radiation. In 1972, a solar storm occurred four months after the crew of Apollo 16 had left the Moon, and four months before the crew of Apollo 17 arrived. On a short space mission, the risk of catastrophic exposure is low. But as Nasa’s aim is now for a long-term presence, it needs a rethink. Companies are deploying materials developed for bulletproof vests and nuclear first-responders.

For the astronauts, future missions to the Moon should offer moderate advances in comfort. Orion will be a third bigger than its predecessor, although it will also have to accommodate four people rather than three.

In a Pew Research Centre poll last year, only 13% of Americans said sending astronauts to the Moon should be a priority for Nasa; 44% said it wasn’t important at all or shouldn’t be done

The astronauts will be able to exercise — Apollo’s control system couldn’t cope with the extra heat and water — and to prepare meals aboard Orion and the Gateway; in the latter they may even be able to grow vegetables, a technology already tried on the ISS. (The growing system uses LEDs, which were only invented in the 1960s.)

And thanks to a new waste-management system, they should not have to worry about loose stools in zero gravity.

Armstrong and Aldrin spent less than 22 hours on the Moon, and only eight days and three hours on their mission. The next astronauts are expected to spend nearly a week on the surface, and up to three weeks away from Earth.

Their actions will be captured on GoPro cameras. The hope is that this will bring home the reality of their achievement to those on Earth. Whether the cameras will stop conspiracy theories, however, is less clear. This is the age of YouTube.

The Moon has switched sides. Apollo was a project championed by Democratic politicians, derided as “nuts” by one Republican president (Dwight Eisenhower) and cancelled by another (Richard Nixon). But it’s Republican presidents, perhaps because of their closer ties to the defence industry, who have wanted a re-run.

Trump, in fact, is treading where previous Republican presidents have failed. In July 1989, George Bush Sr promised: “For the new century, back to the Moon, back to the future, and this time back to stay!” In January 2004, George W Bush announced his own space strategy, including a goal to “return to the Moon by 2020”.

Ultimately, the biggest difference between Apollo and Artemis may be that Apollo actually happened, and on schedule. The big obstacle for Artemis is cost. Adjusted for inflation, Apollo cost about $200bn. Today, Nasa has an annual budget of $20bn, and the Trump administration has so far proposed an increase of just $1.6bn a year.

“It really wasn’t an encouraging sign in terms of the actual political priority that they’re going to put behind this,” says Dreier, of The Planetary Society think-tank. Even Trump’s proposed increase, a small down-payment of the $20bn-$30bn that Nasa wants, has been opposed by Democrats, because it would be funded by cutting federal grants for low-income college students.

Politicians will also need to brace themselves for budget overruns and delays. One of Artemis’s most complex components, the landing system, is yet to be commissioned. Boeing’s SLS rocket is currently $1.8bn over-budget, and 19 months behind schedule. Nasa officials say its expected test launch date of June 2020 is unlikely to be met.

Relying on private companies is no panacea. In search of innovation and lower costs, Nasa treats companies as partners rather than simple contractors. But Boeing and SpaceX are also behind schedule on a separate flagship contract to fly astronauts to the ISS.

All in all, the probability of a landing in 2024 is “low”, says Dreier. “To say we can go back to the Moon on the cheap and we’ll do it faster than Apollo — it strains credibility ... Every space policy expert right now has this struggle. You don’t want to just be negative and say that they can’t do it, but we have to look at this honestly ... Nasa’s being put in a very difficult position politically.”

In a Pew Research Centre poll last year, only 13% of Americans said sending astronauts to the Moon should be a priority for Nasa; 44% said it wasn’t important at all or shouldn’t be done. Public support is higher for Nasa’s other programmes, such as monitoring climate and tracking asteroids.

But public support was fragile in the Apollo era too. The programme succeeded because the White House remained committed and because the cold war focused minds. At its peak, it employed 400,000 people.

“We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard,” Kennedy said in September 1962. More than five decades later, we sometimes overlook the fact that going to the Moon is still hard. Going there in a way that also puts Mars within reach is very hard indeed.

• Mance is the FT’s chief feature writer. Kanematsu is a Nikkei staff writer. This article was produced as part of the 2019 FT/Nikkei fellowship in San Francisco

© 2019 The Financial Times Limited