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50 years later, NASA is on the verge of sending people to the moon again

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Fifty years ago today, astronauts touched down on the moon in a spacecraft they called Challenger.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

EUGENE CERNAN: Houston, the Challenger has landed.

RASCOE: Apollo 17 astronauts Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt were the last people to ever land on the moon. But NASA is finally on the verge of sending people back. It's got a new space vehicle that's returning to Earth today after its first test flight. NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce is here to talk about moon landings past and future.

Welcome to the show.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: Thank you so much.

RASCOE: So first of all, let's revisit Apollo 17 for a minute. Did the astronauts on that mission in 1972 know that it was going to be the final trip to the moon for a while?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Yeah, they did know that. I mean, the Cold War race to the moon had been won, and it was a risky program. The Apollo 13 mission showed that with the mishap they had. So NASA was basically told to pursue other things. So Eugene Cernan knew he was going to be the last one on the moon for a while. And when he took the final steps on the moon, here's what he said.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CERNAN: We leave as we came and, God willing, as we shall return, with peace and hope for all mankind.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: You know, Cernan also brought home the overshoes that he wore, like, the boots that made the final footprints on the lunar dust. And other astronauts had just left that kind of footwear behind to reduce the weight in their spacecraft as they came home. But he knew those were going to be historic.

RASCOE: And Cernan became famous as the last man on the moon, right? I mean, that's a big deal.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Yeah. He didn't love that title, really. Here's what he told me on the 40th anniversary - so that's 10 years ago.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

CERNAN: I'd like to be able to shake the hand of that young man or young woman who replaces me in that category. But unfortunately, the way things have gone and the way things are looking for the future, that won't happen in my lifetime. And that truly is disappointing.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: He was right. He died in 2017. But I think Cernan would be pleased at where NASA is now. It really seems poised for a return. You know, there's been support across multiple presidential administrations and Congress, as well. And NASA has developed and built a giant new moon rocket. It finally launched it just last month after a bunch of delays.

RASCOE: So, I mean, that's the space capsule that went up and is coming back today. Like, how has the test flight gone?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Seemingly fine. The capsule has traveled, like, a million miles on this looping journey around the moon. And it's taken photos of itself during its close approaches when it would come within, like, 80 miles or so of the surface. But the biggest test is probably going to be reentering the earth's atmosphere because it'll be coming back at over 24,000 miles per hour. So that's Mach 32. And mission managers want to see how well the heat shield does. If all goes well, parachutes will deploy. It'll splashdown in the Pacific Ocean near San Diego, and then they'll recover the spacecraft.

RASCOE: So this test flight had mannequins on board, not actual astronauts. Like, when could it actually take people to space?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: The next flight is supposed to be the one with people, and that isn't expected for another couple years, so 2024. The plan for that mission is to take astronauts around the moon and back but not to land on the surface yet. So it'll sort of be like what Apollo 8 did in 1968.

RASCOE: So if the program continues as planned, when will people touch down on the moon again?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: NASA is working towards a target date of 2025. That's the goal. But most space watchers expect that's going to slip. It'll be later than that, probably.

RASCOE: That's NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce. Thank you so much for joining us.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
Nell Greenfieldboyce is a NPR science correspondent.