The popularity of every Star Wars and Star Trek spin-off imaginable on TV streaming services shows how much Americans remain intrigued by the possibility “to boldly go where no man has gone before.” But 53 years after Neil Armstrong first set foot on the moon, our excitement waxes and wanes with the ups and downs of real-world space exploration orchestrated by NASA.

Engineers and technicians assemble the James Webb Space Telescope on Nov. 2, 2016, at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. Earlier this month, NASA released the first batch of images from the telescope, photographs that widely impressed viewers. Alex Wong/Getty Images/TNS

Consider a spate of recent news stories which have alternately grabbed brief snatches of our attention or been mostly greeted by yawns.

Earlier this month, NASA released the first batch of images from the James Webb Space Telescope, photographs that widely impressed viewers (although there were more than a few who compared the latest views of these celestial bodies to upholstery swaths). The price tag for those photos? Close to $11 billion and counting, and Americans are split over whether it was money well spent. In a recent poll, 60 percent of respondents said the telescope was a good investment, while about 40 percent were either unsure or thought it wasn’t worth it.

The possibility that aliens might have dumped junk on the moon raised eyebrows last month when NASA released photographs of an unusual double crater left behind by something that had smashed into the far side of the moon in March. The ho-hums came when it was later explained that the craters most likely were created by part of a Chinese rocket launched in 2014. It eventually fell from space and crashed on the moon instead of burning up in the Earth’s atmosphere as planned. China denies this. But does China ever admit a mistake?

Barely making the news was the June 28 launch of a spacecraft called CAPSTONE that was built by several NASA contractors and is operated by a private company, Advanced Space. After a four-month journey, CAPSTONE will orbit the moon for six months gathering information useful to future moon missions. The $30 million project reminds us that even with the private sector doing more and more of what NASA used to do on its own, space exploration still isn’t cheap.

The Trump administration commanded NASA to return to the moon by 2024, but a number of funding and development delays have made that goal fluid. SpaceX, owned by Tesla founder Elon Musk, won the $2.9 billion contract to develop the Artemis lunar landing system that NASA hopes will put humans on the moon for the first time since 1972. The space agency has defended Artemis’ cost, saying the lunar landers it built for the Apollo program would cost $23 billion each in today’s dollars.

NASA contractors are also building separate units of a lunar space station that it’s calling Gateway. It will have docking ports for visiting spacecraft and areas for crews to live and work. The space agency is paying companies Northrop Grumman $935 million to build Gateway’s living area and Maxar $375 million to build its propulsion unit. However, some estimates say almost $4 billion may be spent on Gateway before the project is finished.

Whether that kind of money stays with NASA or is beamed to Musk’s SpaceX or Jeff Bezos’ Blue Horizon, taxpayers footing the bill should continue asking if manned space exploration is still too expensive. NASA has many missions in which the only human involvement is by long distance from Earth. Should it continue paying steep prices to send humans when expendable machines could travel for much less? In most cases, automated probes and other calibrated machines might do the job.

The moon has not been a manned space flight destination for 50 years because the expense of a return didn’t seem worth it. Even now, renewed interest in the moon is based on using it as a base to send humans to Mars. The red planet has become the bauble dangled before Congress each year to entice NASA’s budget approvals. Stretching its spending across more years doesn’t mean space exploration would end. It might take more time but, as Einstein explained, time is relative.

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