Popular Mechanics caught up with Apollo astronaut Thomas Stafford recently. The 86-year-old former Air Force officer, test pilot, and astronaut voiced a complaint that is common with people of his era. Why have we not been to Mars yet, not to mention even back to the moon since 1972? The spectacle of a burst of space exploration that included six successful expeditions to the lunar surface was a handful, followed by decades of being trapped in low Earth orbit was aggravating to those who lived through it. The reasons are complicated and I explain them in “Why is it so Hard to Go Back to the Moon?”

Who is Thomas Stafford?

General Stafford was chosen in the second group of astronauts by NASA in 1962.

His first spaceflight was Gemini 6, which engaged in a rendezvous with Gemini 7 in 1965. The following year, he was part of the crew of Gemini 9. Two months before the first moon landing, Stafford commanded Apollo 10 that orbited the moon and performed all of the maneuvers of a lunar mission except for the landing. He finished his astronaut career as commander of the NASA portion of the Apollo Soyuz Test Project that involved the docking of an Apollo spacecraft with a Soviet Soyuz.

Over 20 years later, Stafford chaired a committee that was tasked with developing a report about how to implement then-President George H. W. Bush’s Space Exploration Initiative. The report was duly released and then ignored as Congress refused to fund SEI, and President Bill Clinton canceled the program.

The lost decades

Someone who was of age in 1969 got to see live one of the most remarkable sights human eyes ever witnessed -- human beings walking and working on the moon’s surface. That person would be forgiven for believing that space exploration had become the new normal. One report that was issued soon after the Apollo moon landing forecasted the first Mars voyage occurring in the 1980s.

The soonest that such a mission could take place is in the 2030s unless one believes the boasting of Elon Musk that he could make it happen in the mid-2020s.

The reaction of many people has ranged from wistfulness to bitterness. I dealt with my own feelings on the matter by writing “Children of Apollo,” an alternate history set in a world where Apollo had been just the beginning of an age of space exploration.

Others took a sour grapes attitude, suggesting that the Apollo program was an anomaly that perhaps should not have been undertaken. In any event, the United States is engaged in a third attempt to get human space exploration started in the past generation. Perhaps the lost decades are coming to an end.