2024 Moon Timeline Is "Extremely Tight," Says Former NASA Flight Director

"American industry, if it gets turned on, can do just about anything."

Whether or not you recognize Milt Windler’s name, you have definitely heard about his escapades. A retired NASA Flight Director, Windler was one of four flight directors on the Apollo 13 operations team, all of whom were awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Richard Nixon for their work in guiding the crippled spacecraft safely back to Earth.

Nearly 50 years later, the NASA veteran is still in the mix, and he’s cautiously optimistic that the US can get back to the moon by 2024. The success of the first moon landing, as well as the averted tragedy of the Apollo 13 mission, he’s feeling good about the space agency’s ability to get the job done.

Since an Apollo lunar mission went on for nearly six days straight, teams were on rotation at Mission Control in Houston working around the clock — and in the case of Apollo 13, it was essential that these teams work seamlessly to make sure astronauts Jim Lovell, John Swigert, and Fred Haise survived their ordeal.

NASA
Windler on the left, inspecting the improvised air scrubber that helped save the lives of the Apollo 13 astronauts

Windler was on shift when Mission Control staff came up with the now-famous improvised oxygen scrubber to remove dangerously rising levels of carbon dioxide — exhaled air — from the Apollo command and lunar modules.

Inverse got a rare opportunity to speak to Windler at a celebration at the Cradle of Aviation Museum on Long Island. This facility has a long history with the Apollo program since it’s located right around the corner from the old Grumman facility where lunar modules were actually built.

We asked him what his thoughts were on the Artemis program and the renewed attempts to reach the moon by 2024.

NASA is currently aiming to return astronauts to the lunar surface in just five years, and some critics have said the technical and financial challenges are just too great to accomplish the feat in such a short timeframe — especially in our current political climate. At first, Windler may sound like one such critic.

“When I [first] read the goal, it was a little mushy on ‘let’s go back to the moon,’” he told Inverse. “I don’t think it said ‘land somebody on the moon,’ so I guess you could say that the goal might be reached by an Apollo 8 kind of mission, where you just orbit the moon.”

In 1968, Apollo 8 became the first crewed spacecraft to leave low Earth orbit, reach the Moon, orbit it, and return. Crewed by Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and William Anders, it served as the first dry run for the Apollo 11 mission that would eventually land on the lunar surface. Even though Windler initially thought our best hope would be to duplicate Apollo 8’s mission, his optimism may have come around.

“But I didn’t think we were going to make a lunar landing in the decade of the 60s and we did, so American industry, if it gets turned on, can do just about anything,” he says. “I do think this will be a question of funding,” he adds, saying that the money has to not only be adequate but also consistent.

“We’re past that day when we can say, ‘we’re just going to do this,’” he says. “If Congress doesn’t fund it, and in fact if this administration doesn’t ask for it…it won’t happen.”

“But I’m always hopeful,” Windler adds. “I’m always optimistic that given the right set of circumstances and the right kind of leadership, that it can get done. Landing someone on the moon by 2024 is going to be extremely tight.”

Over the last few months, Windler says, he’s traveled around the world talking to people about crewed space missions, and he’s been particularly inspired by one group that gives him hope we will make it back to the moon in the next decade. For these folks, that’s just the beginning though.

“I think, particularly the young people, seem to be more knowledgeable and motivated to go back into space,” he says. “In fact, and I’m talking about deep space, because one of the questions I get all the time is, ‘why has it been 50 years?’ and it’s kind of hard to answer in some respects because they thought — I thought — that by the time their babies were born, we’d be on Mars.”

Media via NASA, Video by Scott Snowden for Inverse