No human being, at this writing, has been beyond low Earth orbit since the last moon mission in 1972. The Europeans, the Chinese, and the Japanese have robust space programs. In the near future, billionaire entrepreneurs expect to sell space rides to mere millionaires. And the civil space program in America has an elaborate plan for a return to the moon (and perhaps an eventual manned mission to Mars). But you don't have to be a cynic to wonder when and how and if the money will actually materialize for another moon shot.
Putting human beings on the moon would be a great engineering feat—again—and might yield innovations that we can't now imagine, but the central achievement of getting there and back safely would be built on Apollo-style space architecture. The way they did it in the 1960s is pretty much the way we'd do it in the 2020s.
Apollo happened because of the Cold War. This elaborate voyage had to be accomplished by the end of 1969 to uphold President Kennedy's vow to put a man on the moon and return him safely to Earth "before this dec- ade is out." This was, after all, a race against the Soviet Union, which had its own lunar ambitions.
The Soviets inaugurated the space age with their launch of the tiny satellite Sputnik in 1957. They trumpeted their edge in missile technology. Rocket science and missile science went hand in hand; the history of Apollo is inextricably tied to the history of the nuclear arms race. Space was, like Korea and Vietnam, a proxy battlefield for the superpowers.
The Soviets had the more powerful rockets in the early years, and the more accomplished space program. Their superiority was broadcast to the world in 1961 when Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space and orbited the Earth. Alan Shepard, one of the celebrated original seven Mercury astronauts, made it into space a month later, and though that was a mere suborbital flight, it showed that America was in the game.
Both space programs had fiascos and tragedies. The second American spaceflight ended badly: The returned capsule sank, and astronaut Gus Grissom barely got out alive. Grissom, along with Roger Chaffee and Ed White, died in early 1967 when their Apollo 1 capsule caught fire during a training exercise at Cape Canaveral. That tragedy set the program back almost two years. The Soviets had fatalities, too, but those were hushed up in keeping with the secretive nature of the Moscow regime.
The Soviet moon program lagged after the sudden death of its leader, Sergei Korolev, and after several test failures of its giant moon rocket, the N-1. Maybe it also faltered because though Soviet central planners were good at building big things, like subways and tanks and rockets, spaceflight, it turned out, was full of small details, inventiveness, contingencies, serendipity. To make it work, sometimes you had to fly by the seat of your pants.