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21 July 1999

Has the Moon shrunk?

by Mick Hume

'It would surely be worth embarking on a new mission boldly to go where no one has gone before, if only to revive the spirit of exploration'

Has the Moon shrunk? Somehow it seems much smaller today than when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin first set foot on it in July 1969. Thirty years ago the idea of landing on the Moon loomed large enough to fill the imagination. Now it has been reduced to an historical footnote.

At the time the Moon landing was seen as a symbol of progress and science fiction writer Ray Bradbury called it "the greatest moment in human history". For many people today, by contrast, it seems to have been at best an environmentally incorrect waste of money.

With BBC television apparently more excited about a Two Ronnies anniversary, it has been left to Channel 4 and UK Horizons to mark the Moon landing over the past week. Even their coverage has been distinctly retro in tone. Hearing Peter Snow describe the Moon landing as "the miracle of the millennium" brought home just how distant those momentous events seem from today. When almost the only ones still dreaming of space conquest appear to be two amateur eccentrics with their overgrown firework on a North Yorkshire moor, Mr Snow might as well have been describing the raising of Lazarus from the dead.

What has really changed over the past 30 years is not the Moon, but life on Earth. The loss of belief in space exploration is a spin-off of the more downbeat mood of our age. Society now seems always concerned to lower expectations and avoid risk. Hardly surprising, then, that conquering "the final frontier" should have slipped so far down the agenda.

The discussion around the anniversary reveals more about what we believe today than about what actually happened 30 years ago. Then, the Moon landing was hailed as the first step in the march of human progress across the galaxies. Now progress itself is in such disrepute that, far from striding onwards to other planets, the popular environmentalist demand is for science and development to be driven back from the four corners of the Earth. Those e-mailing the BBC to criticise the Moon landing this week have accused the Apollo programme of every imaginable eco-crime, from destroying the ozone layer to polluting the Sea of Tranquillity. They complain that the race to the Moon was a by-product of Cold War militarism (true, but so what?), or worse, another aggressive act of colonial conquest, as if walking on a lifeless rock in space was comparable to trampling on the wretched of the Earth. In similarly bizarre vein, an exhibition at Washington's Smithsonian Institution a couple of years back asked: "Does Mars have rights?"

The loss of faith in space exploration is nowhere more evident than in the White House. In the 1960s, JFK sought to calm post-Sputnik nerves by promising to put an American on the Moon within ten years. In the 1980s, even the dullard George Bush tried to inspire America by pledging that a man would walk on Mars within 50 years. In the 1990s, Bill Clinton cancelled that project. A President who thinks it is too risky to send troops into Kosovo is not going to send Nasa to occupy Mars.

The lowering of expectations since the Moon landing is symbolised in popular science fiction. The original Star Trek was about an intrepid band of explorers on a mission of discovery, "to boldly go where no man has gone before". The 1990s versions of the show revolve around self-obsessed individuals whose main concern is to find themselves as they float through outer space.

Listening to some of the discussion this week one could be forgiven for thinking that the only argument in favour of the Apollo programme was that it supposedly invented Teflon, and so made the frying pan safe for civilisation. In fact there were, and are, far more impressive technological gains to be made from space exploration.

In any case, it would surely be worth embarking on a new mission boldly to go where no one has gone before, if only to raise our sights and revive the spirit of exploration. The veteran Apollo 11 astronauts this week proposed a manned mission to Mars. To many that must sound like the stuff of fantasy. Yet, as the astronomer Henry Joy McCracken points out, "remarkably, Nasa design studies show there are no technological reasons preventing humans from travelling to Mars".

It seems that the science is willing, but the spirit is weak. Thirty years ago, the astronaut John Glenn would never have believed that, when he returned to space as a pensioner in the late 1990s, the best they could offer him would be a low orbit of the Earth. We are in danger of creating a world where, while some of us are in the gutter, none of us is looking at the stars.

This article appeared in The Times on 20 July 1999

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