Science & Technology

Only 12 People Have Been on the Moon

Neil Armstrong's trail-blazing lunar jaunt is common knowledge. Since that iconic touchdown on July 20, 1969, only 11 people have dirtied their astro boots with moon dust. But who were they? And why haven't we gone back?

Related Video: Why Did NASA Cancel the Apollo Program?

We Need Some Space

We don't have to get into the details of the Space Race of the '60s, right? Let's just sum it up by saying that, from the years 1967 to 1972, NASA was focused on planting a flag on Earth's little orbiting buddy. With Project Apollo, six missions reached the moon. But its purpose went beyond just getting there. NASA's goals included the following:

  • Establishing the technology to meet other national interests in space.
  • Achieving preeminence in space for the United States.
  • Carrying out a program of scientific exploration of the Moon.
  • Developing man's capability to work in the lunar environment.

The last time humanity set foot on the moon was 1972. Yep, Pink Floyd releasing "Dark Side Of The Moon" was more recent news. Why have we seemingly moved on from the moon? Simply put, NASA's priorities changed. (It's not you, moon, it's us.)

The nation faced an oil crisis in 1973 and government funds needed to be allocated there, not on the moon. Just like that, the Apollo missions were canceled, forced to end after Apollo 17. With a tighter budget than it had ever had, the space agency shifted gears toward Skylab, the space shuttle program, and various satellites and probes. Maybe not as sexy as moonwalking, the subsequent NASA milestones were nonetheless important.

But all was not lost. In 2018, the moon got popular again. NASA announced plans send humans there as early as 2020. More recently, Elon Musk announced that SpaceX would send humans to the moon — er, around the moon, anyway. If you weren't around for the Apollo program, you still might be alive when a person sets foot on the lunar surface!

Apollo 17 mission commander Eugene A. Cernan makes a short checkout of the Lunar Roving Vehicle during the early part of the first Apollo 17 extravehicular activity at the Taurus-Littrow landing site.

That's Twelve Small Steps For Man ...

The only 12 people to set foot on the moon were all American men, and no one has been to the moon more than once. To say this is an exclusive club is putting it lightly. So let's meet the team, shall we?

1. Neil Armstrong. He famously touched moon dust on July 20, 1969, on the Apollo 11 mission. A Navy pilot, engineer, and war veteran, Armstrong was Apollo 11's commander.

Neil Armstrong

2. Buzz Aldrin. Also aboard Apollo 11, Aldrin was right behind Armstrong as they exited the Lunar Module Eagle to set foot on the moon for the first time.

Buzz Aldrin

3. Pete Conrad. He was the commander of 1969's Apollo 12 mission to the moon, notably uttering a goofy line as he touched down on lunar soil.

Pete Conrad

4. Alan Bean. The lunar module pilot of Apollo 12, Bean retired from training NASA astronauts in 1981 to focus on his art (you can see his spacey work here).

Alan Bean

5. Alan Shepard. Also the first American ever launched into space, he reached the moon as commander of the Apollo 14 mission.

Alan Shepard

6. Ed Mitchell. He was the lunar module pilot of Apollo 14 but later gained notoriety for his outspoken opinions on UFOs. In 1972, he founded the Institute of Noetic Sciences, which focuses on bringing "objective scientific tools and techniques together with subjective inner knowing to study the full range of human experiences."

Ed Mitchell

7. David Scott. After having flown on Apollo 9 as command module pilot, he finally reached the moon with Apollo 15 in 1971. He, and his crew, tarnished their reputation a tad with the "postage stamp incident."

David Scott

8. James Irwin. He was the lunar module pilot for Apollo 15. In the last few decades of his life, the creationist astronaut took several groups on expeditions to find Noah's Ark.

James Irwin

9. John Young. He orbited the moon on the Apollo 10 mission, then touched down on the moon as commander of the Apollo 16 mission in 1972. In 1981, he also commanded the first space shuttle flight.

John Young

10. Charles Duke. He reached the moon with Apollo 16 but is also well known for his role in Apollo 11. During humanity's first trek to the lunar service, Duke served as CAPCOM (capsule communicator), broadcasting his distinctive southern drawl all over the world.

Charles Duke

11. Jack Schmitt. A geologist first, he was the first scientist not only on the moon, but in outer space too. His feet hit the moon in 1972 as he served as Apollo 17's lunar module pilot.

Jack Schmitt

12. Gene Cernan. Commander of Apollo 17, he was the last person to set foot on the moon. As he boarded the lunar module on December 13th, 1972, he said, "I'm on the surface; and, as I take man's last step from the surface, back home for some time to come — but we believe not too long into the future — I'd like to just [say] what I believe history will record. That America's challenge of today has forged man's destiny of tomorrow. And, as we leave the Moon at Taurus-Littrow, we leave as we came and, God willing, as we shall return: with peace and hope for all mankind. Godspeed the crew of Apollo 17."

Eugene Cernam

Get stories like this one in your inbox or your headphones: sign up for our daily email and subscribe to the Curiosity Daily podcast.

Hear the whole story of the Apollo program in vivid imagery with "Apollo to the Moon: A History in 50 Objects," a collaboration between National Geographic and the Smithsonian. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Joanie Faletto July 17, 2017

Curiosity uses cookies to improve site performance, for analytics and for advertising. By continuing to use our site, you accept our use of cookies, our Privacy Policy and Terms of Use.