NASA had grand plans for the Moon during the Apollo program, but those dreams were cut short a few years after the first landing. Apollo 17 would mark the last time humans ventured to the Moon.
In the 1960’s, NASA was developing ambitious offshoots for the Apollo Program - primarily establishment of a Moon base intended to extend humanity’s time on the surface. The Lunar Shelter-Laboratory or SHELAB was one of the concepts under consideration. SHELAB consisted of a cabin with an airlock chamber and a lunar excursion truck equipped with a flying belt for the astronauts. Powered by fuel cells and batteries, the shelter would support two astronauts for 14 days. It was believed that the lunar bases could be the start of a large permanent colony on the Moon.
At the time, expanding on Apollo wasn’t so far fetched. The country’s Cold War competition and desire to be first rapidly expanded the potential of space exploration. Two years after NASA began operations, the U.S. government allocated $500 million of the federal budget to the agency. In just five years, the budget grew to $5.2 billion which represented 5.3 percent of all government spending. With the massive expansion came hundreds of thousands of jobs. NASA’s labor force peaked in the mid 60’s with a reported 400,000 staffers and contractors. The majority of NASA’s resources went to the Apollo Program. Between 1959 and 1973, the agency spent just over $23 billion on human spaceflight of which nearly $20 billion was for Apollo. That amount of money today would equate to over $130 billion spent on one program alone.
But by the 1970’s, public attention was no longer above the clouds. With the lunar landing achieved, attention shifted to the seemingly endless Vietnam War. And that’s where government funds went as well, putting a huge strain on the U.S. economy. Budget cuts forced the agency to rethink the feasibility of its exploration plans. And since the Apollo Program was expensive and risky, the agency’s priorities started to move towards other projects.
Ultimately, NASA decided to cut the Apollo Program, and its deep space dreams short. In 1970, the flights planned for Apollo 15, 19 and 20 were cancelled, and the remaining missions were renumbered. The cancelled missions freed up resources for NASA’s Skylab and Space Shuttle - programs that were slated to launch over the next two decades. Some of the astronauts who spent years training for Apollo were reassigned to these programs while others retired without ever making it to space. The Apollo 17 crew would be the last humans to land on the Moon.