With the passing of Neil Armstrong today, I thought it appropriate to bring up an interesting question that I wrote about several years ago on my personal blog before I started traveling.
I was born on August 24, 1969. It was exactly 34 days after Neil Armstrong landed on the moon on July 20 of the same year. That means that I was one of the first people born into a world where there were footprints on the moon. I have never known a day in my life where I didn’t share the planet with someone who walked on the surface of the moon.
The question I’ve been wondering is: we will always live in a world where there are human beings who have walked on the moon?
To put it in other terms: will humans return to the moon before the last moonwalker dies?
First, let’s look at the men who walked on the moon.
From 1969 to 1972, 12 human beings walked on the moon. With Neil Armstrong’s passing, there are now 8 living moonwalkers. They are:
- Buzz Aldrin, Apollo 11, Age 82
- Alan Bean, Apollo 12, Age 80
- Edgar Mitchell, Apollo 14, Age 81
- Dave Scott, Apollo 15, Age 80
- John Young, Apollo 16, Age
- Charlie Duke, Apollo 16, Age 76
- Gene Cernan, Apollo 17, Age 78
- Harrison Schmitt, Apollo 17, Age 77
Most of the Apollo astronauts have, or appear to be on track, to live longer than the average human life expectancy. This shouldn’t be a surprise as they were chosen in part for their physical attributes.
Assuming that at least one of the moonwalkers lives to be 100 years old (which is not out of the question and probably is an upper limit we can reasonably assume for ages), that means the last moonwalker will be gone in about 15-25 years.
It has been 40 years since the last human set foot on the moon.
The question can be reduced to: can some country (probably the US or China) gather up the political and financial will to return to the moon in the next 15-25 years?
Last year the Chinese announced their intention to land a taikonaut on the Moon. However, there is no timetable or Kennedy-esque challenge to achieve the goal within a certain time. I’ve heard 2025 tossed around as a date they could reasonably expect to achieve it by.
Assuming they do land someone on the moon in 2025, there would probably only be a few moonwalkers remaining from the Apollo program.
My personal guess is that the odds of China landing someone on the moon before the last of the Apollo moonwalkers passes away are quite good. If for no other reasons than national pride, this is something I could see the Chinese doing within 15 years.
The big question is if they would continue to go to the moon once they planted the flag.
As the United States has shown, once the national pride is fulfilled, the isn’t much political will to spend the money to go back.
It is possible other countries like Russia or India could also try to make a moon flight. At this point, it isn’t an issue of technology so much as it is one of political will and money. The computing power of an iPhone is many times greater than all the computing power which was used in the Apollo program. However, the cost of launching heavy objects into orbit is still expensive and not much different than it was in the 1970s.
My guess is that by the year 2030, the only living humans to have walked on the moon will be Chinese. By the end of the century, however, unless there is a dramatic technical development which reduces the cost of launching things into orbit, there is a good chance there might be no living humans who have been on the moon.
If that happens it will be quite sad that one of the greatest accomplishments as a species is something we will have to look back to in our past.