In 1969, America won the Space Race by landing on the moon. In the half-century since, technology has made just about everything easier except getting back up there. In this two part series, we explore some of the reasons why a modern moon mission is a long shot in its own right. In part one, we covered the unique geopolitical climate of the 1960s that led to an influx of economic support for NASA and the Apollo program in particular. Now, we’ll address some of the engineering and political obstacles standing between mankind and the moon.

You can read “Why can’t we get back to the moon? Part 1: Apollo as a ‘one-off’ enterprisehere.

NASA doesn’t have a rocket that can reach the moon

While rockets that can reach low earth orbit are seemingly a dime a dozen these days, rockets that are capable of traveling the nearly 239,000 miles to the moon and back are exceedingly rare. SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy may, in fact, be the first rocket capable of the feat since the retirement of the legendary Saturn V (which only had 13 total launches before being sent out to pasture). However, even the Falcon Heavy’s 5 million pounds of thrust pales in comparison to the Saturn V’s 7.6  million.

For years now, NASA has been working on developing the Space Launch System (SLS), which will theoretically unseat the Saturn V for the title of most powerful rocket in history — but the SLS has progressed painfully slowly thanks to its design decisions being made largely by political committees rather than engineers and experts. Couple that with a smaller budget and space policy schizophrenia (more on that later) and you have a recipe for failure, not for moon missions.

Artist’s rendering of the SLS in flight. (NASA)

As a result, the SLS has been dubbed “the rocket to nowhere” by some press outlets, and rumors continue to swirl about its potential cancellation in favor of relying on privately owned rockets from firms like SpaceX. Despite the limitations of time and space, I can still hear you asking aloud, “well, why not just pull the Saturn V out of the mothballs and retrofit some better computers into the crew compartment?”