By Richard Muller, Prof. Physics UC Berkeley, author “Physics for Future Presidents”
There never was much value in going to the Moon in the first place, so there was no good reason to return.
When J.F. Kennedy proposed we go to the moon by the end of the 1960s, his goal was to raise American spirits, to return us to a belief that we could win in a competition with the surging Soviet Union (which was not only beating us in space, but even in the Olympics!).
When Kennedy died, I think we were determined to get to the Moon in the now sacred deadline of the late 1960s, to fulfill Kennedy’s dream.
Scientists liked the Moon shot, primarily (this is my observation, not based on a careful poll) because it injected a lot of money into science in space. If the same money had been made available for science in space, but not involving human transport, then most scientists would have favored unmanned experiments, including unmanned exploration of the Moon. It made much more financial sense, but most people (especially at NASA) believed that without the human involvement, the public would not support high levels of spending.
Once we met Kennedy’s goals, of restoring the US spirit and self confidence, then the financial considerations took over. There simply is not much value added by putting men on the Moon; arguably, there is much science value lost. (Science experiments that have to be man-safe are far more expensive.) On the other hand, you’ll notice that not a lot of money has been spent on sending robots to the Moon. Some, and they’ve done some remarkable things, but not the many billions that go along with a man shot.
Instead, we have spent our resources with unmanned exploration of the solar system, with truly spectacular results. We’ve discovered that every moon of every planet appears to be different from every other moon! (That’s only a slight exaggeration.) The great glory of NASA in the last few decades has been its unmanned program. In comparison, the Space Station has accomplished very little. (Again, that is my personal evaluation.)