KUALA LUMPUR – In 1961, U.S. President John F. Kennedy set a goal of placing Americans on the moon by the end of the decade. Eight years later, on July 20, 1969, his ambition was fulfilled. For the next three years, American astronauts made regular, albeit brief, visits to the lunar surface. The journeys ended in December 1972, when Apollo 17 departed a lunar highland for the trip home. No human, much less an American, has ventured past low Earth orbit since then.
The Trump administration says it wants to change that. In late March, Vice President Mike Pence announced it was the “stated policy” of the White House to return U.S. astronauts to the lunar surface within the next five years. The short deadline is smart, if ambitious. But any new U.S. moonshot can’t claim to be a success if it only leaves behind another set of lunar boot prints. The mission must instead focus on establishing the technologies, infrastructure and commercial motives to ensure that such visits become more than a twice-a-century occurrence.