NEW YORK — It's been almost 50 years since humans first set foot on the moon. And since that historic journey, space exploration has grown tremendously. Government and private space enterprise alike now work toward a future in which spaceflight is as commonplace as it is ambitious and far-reaching. But it has been decades since 1972, when the last human footprint was made on the moon's dusty surface.
In a conversation with Space.com, former NASA astronaut Mike Massimino, who now serves as the senior advisor of space programs at the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum and as an American professor of mechanical engineering at Columbia University, said that he thinks it's high time that humans return to the moon. "We haven't been back there since the Apollo missions, but I think it's time now that we should go back," Massimino told Space.com aboard the Intrepid in front of the Space Shuttle Enterprise. [The Apollo 11 Moon Landing Pictures]
Massimino likened the current interest in space travel and a return to the moon to exploratory missions to the South and North Poles more than a hundred years ago. Just like we set up research stations and have stayed for extended periods in these remote locations, Massimino sees a similar future for humans on the moon. "50 years later, I think we can look forward to going back to the moon again. But not just for a visit — to settle there," he said, referring to the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing.
But Massimino thinks that the next human mission to the surface of the moon will elicit a different response from the general public than that mission, and that's OK. "I don't know if the excitement will be there when we go back," he said. The entire world watched as the Apollo 11 mission landed on the lunar surface, and there have been so many incredible advances in science and space exploration since that Massimino doesn't think a new, crewed lunar mission would be as captivating to the public.
"Even going to Mars, I think probably a lot of people think we've been to Mars too," Massimino said, laughing, adding that even members of his own family think he went to the moon.
"I don't think we should worry about recreating it," Massimino said about the Apollo 11 moon landing. "I think we should just let it stand for what it was. which I think is the greatest accomplishment ever in the history of the world … I think it'll be big when it happens but I don't know if well ever top anything like what happened in the Apollo program."
Massimino expressed his personal excitement about humans going back to the moon, and added that he's excited to see the rise of private space companies alongside developments from agencies such as NASA. With recent advances from companies like Virgin Galactic, SpaceX, Boeing and Blue Origin, there are opportunities to go to space today that didn't exist in the time of the Apollo missions — or at least, there are some approaching in the near future that will allow more people to experience life off of Earth.
"I want to go back to space again; I want to go as a tourist so I can complain about the service on board. I couldn't do that with NASA," Massimino joked.Follow Chelsea Gohd on Twitter @chelsea_gohd. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.