What If The Apollo Program Continued in Secret? | Unveiled

VOICE OVER: Peter DeGiglio
What if NASA's Apollo Program never stopped? Join us... and find out more!

The Apollo Program stands as a breakthrough moment in the history of science and humanity. NASA's successful mission to land the first people on the moon captured global imagination up until it was cancelled in 1972 - and especially in 1969, with the iconic Apollo 11. But what would have happened if America CONTINUED going to the moon, in secret?

What if the Apollo Program Continued in Secret?

One of the greatest things ever accomplished by humankind was the successful moon landing in 1969. From then until 1972, twelve men walked across the lunar surface, with Apollo 17’s crew being the final mission. But Apollo 17 wasn’t intended to be the last time we’d ever go to the moon; what would have happened if we never stopped?

This is Unveiled, and today we’re answering the extraordinary question: what if the Apollo program continued in secret?

The Apollo program saw many successes, not only with the Moonshot, but also in terms of the new technologies developed, which have become invaluable in space exploration and elsewhere. Things like freeze-dried food and advanced computers all trickled down from the innovations of NASA, and are now things we can’t live without. But Apollo was supposed to be even bigger. That’s certainly no easy feat, as the entire Apollo program remains the third most expensive space mission of all time, after the ISS and the Space Shuttle program. It wasn’t meant to end with Apollo 17, but to run all the way up to Apollo 20, which was initially set to launch in December 1972. That ended up being when Apollo 17 launched instead. This would have brought the total number of manned lunar missions to 10, four more than the six we actually got. The Apollo program was an astonishing feat, achieving the first moon landing only eight years after it formally began. That’s especially impressive given that NASA was already around four years behind the USSR when the Space Race really got going.

Ultimately, the Cold War’s hottest period was already over by the early 70s thanks to Nixon’s foreign policy. This led to Apollo’s premature cancellation as well as drastic budget cuts for NASA. At its peak in the mid-60s, NASA’s budget was 4% of the US’s federal budget; today, 4% of the US federal budget is a huge $272 billion, versus NASA’s actual modern budget of around $22 billion. So, you can certainly see why moon landings stopped being feasible in the 70s. Or did they?

NASA’s upcoming Artemis program has attracted a lot of attention with its lofty aims of not only putting the first woman on the moon, but also establishing a permanent lunar base and lunar resource mining operation. It’s something science-fiction has been dreaming about for years. Whether Artemis will achieve these goals or whether it, too, will be surreptitiously canceled, remains to be seen – but this is the natural continuation of Apollo. That’s clear enough from the name, as in Greek mythology Artemis, the goddess of the moon, is Apollo’s twin. Still, with Artemis’s first manned mission supposed to be launching in 2025, there will be more than fifty years between it and Apollo 17 even if all goes to plan.

What if NASA had been doing something else in the interim? What if, unlike what most people know about history, the Cold War continued and hundreds of billions of dollars each year went to furthering America’s lunar interests totally unknown to the public? Well, if this did happen, we can look at other planned Apollo missions to see which ones would have been greenlit had the interest remained high. Something that, for a time, existed concurrently with Apollo was the Apollo Applications Program. It began in 1966 but was ultimately scaled back following the fire in Apollo 1 that tragically killed three astronauts the next year. But just because it was scaled back doesn’t mean it amounts to nothing – in fact, it eventually gave us Skylab, America’s first space station, and was a vital part of the joint Apollo-Soyuz missions. But it also had plans to do many of the things we’re currently looking to Artemis for, like the establishment of a permanent lunar base, a lunar escape system to get astronauts off the moon in an emergency, and a manned flyby of Venus. Sadly, none of these things came to fruition, and we’ve never sent humans to Venus – though this was set to take place as early as 1973.

Beyond the Apollo Applications Program and the lunar-focused Apollo Extension Series, if Apollo had continued we would have seen the launch of Apollo 20. This may not have happened until later in the 70s. Or, if interest had stayed high, perhaps Apollo 20 would have launched in its original spot in 1972, with Apollo 17 launching much sooner. However, it’s not clear what we would have learned from further manned lunar missions at this time. Building a mining outpost to extract lunar resources, like Artemis wants to do, is one thing, but the primary aim of Apollo was just to send people to the moon and bring them back safely. They did other things, too, like conduct experiments and bring back samples, including making the discovery that the moon used to be volcanically active. But NASA’s also made many advances in lunar science without needing to physically send people there. For instance, in 2020, the SOFIA observatory found water molecules on the moon’s surface able to persist even in direct sunlight – and we’ve found water ice at the poles, too.

It’s clear, though, that the only real thing standing between us and a permanent outpost on the moon – even if this is just an outpost for science – is money, rather than ability. We do know how to go to the moon, how to build a settlement there, and we can send people there and bring them back. Plus, unlike Mars, journeys to the moon are pretty fast – it only takes about three days to get there. This means that in an advanced spacecraft, you could go to the moon and come back one day quicker than you can travel the length of the Trans-Siberian Railway, which even today takes six days from Moscow to Vladivostok. This means that if Apollo continued in secret, there certainly could be a top-secret American moon base up there. It is technically possible, especially in the 1970s before the knowledge of how to actually reach the moon became somewhat lost.

This isn’t the only remarkable thing that we technically could have accomplished decades ago had the investment been there. Famously, the physicist Gerard K. O'Neill, a professor at Princeton, had his students design a series of orbital space stations in the 1970s, now an iconic circular design called an “O’Neill Cylinder” after him. Centrifugal space stations are a hallmark of science-fiction, having appeared in “2001: A Space Odyssey”. Cylinders like this have been perfectly viable and ready-to-go for years, and they’re now forming the basis of some of Blue Origin’s space plans.

Elsewhere, though, the Apollo Extension’s prospective Venus mission was particularly interesting. We’ve sent very few probes to Venus compared to Mars thanks to an extremely inhospitable atmosphere that makes it difficult to investigate, despite the fact Venus is potentially an easier place to build a human outpost. Could we have established airship colonies on Venus by now? It’s possible. Though, if Apollo had continued in secret, these colonies would have also been built in secret, so it would be impossible for any ordinary person to go to Venus. But it’s even more plausible that the focus may have shifted in the last fifty years, just like it has in real life, towards Mars. NASA has been talking for decades about sending humans to Mars, and other space agencies are interested in the Red Planet, too – not to mention private companies like SpaceX also becoming irrevocably involved in the New Mars Race.

But had NASA never taken its funding hit and been forced to rely on the endeavors of private companies, it could have reached Mars decades ago, long before countries like China and Japan became major players in outer space. All the facilities on Mars would be operated by NASA first – though, yet again, this would presumably be a secret. If Apollo had continued and achieved all these things, but nobody on Earth knew they’d been accomplished, how useful would it really be though? Sure, it would still be an accomplishment like no other, but NASA is ultimately a publicly funded organization, with American taxpayers footing its bills. These things could all exist, but nobody would really be able to enjoy them except for the select few people chosen to go, and those people would have to keep these enormous things a secret from everyone around them.

Perhaps it’s better that Apollo ended prematurely, since its scientific advancements have since become available for everyone to make use of. And that’s what would have happened if the Apollo program had continued in secret.