This weekend marked a full 45 years since that most celebrated of “small steps” by Neil Armstrong put man on the moon.
It is a couple of years now since Armstrong’s death and four years since his stern warning about what he perceived to be a failure by the US to maintain its lead in space exploration. “For the US, the leading space-faring nation for nearly half a century, to be without carriage to low-Earth orbit and with no human exploration capability to go beyond Earth orbit for an indeterminate time into the future, destines our nation to become one of second or even third-rate stature,” he said.
So what would Armstrong have made of the most recent endeavours in his chosen field? He would have been encouraged by the sheer variety of spaceX projects in the works (although as a good company man, what he would have made of the fact that the bulk of this stellar endeavour is being financed by the private sector is quite another thing).
There are a number of new initiatives aiming to rekindle mankind’s fascination with space and moon landings in particular, all of which put high-definition broadcast images from Earth’s satellite front and centre of their ambition. What greater inspiration for the potential explorers of tomorrow than the full HD treatment, instead of the grainy, blurred footage of the Apollo 11 astronauts which remains the definitive view of lunar exploration for the hundreds of millions who watched live in the summer of 1969.
Visionary in an almost literal sense, then, but what else is motivating the new breed of spacemen? Is there the same evangelical zeal that seemed to compel Nasa and their Soviet counterparts on the Sputnik programme? Most of the key actors in the “new space race” have necessary commercial imperatives alongside their loftier, philanthropic ones. And yet the rhetoric is not dissimilar from that voiced in the 1960s. It’s all “epic futures” and “voyages into the unknown”.
Which rather makes you wonder: what became of all the promise pinned like so many shiny Nasa badges to the original moonwalkers? Has as much of the technological and scientific potential of those amazing missions been squandered as cynics would have us believe?
The apocryphal tale of the millions of US taxpayer dollars spent on a gravity-defying ballpoint pen (in lieu of the pragmatist’s choice: a pencil) is an oft-used example of the ultimate futility of the space programme. But in weeks like this, when everyone of a certain age remembers where they were when witnessing the bravery of Armstrong and his friends, maybe we should all remember what the humble Buckeye himself used to say to justify space exploration:
“Knowledge is fundamental to all human achievements and progress. It is both the key and the quest that advances mankind. How we use the knowledge we gain determines our progress on Earth, in space or on the moon.”
I think we had better stick with it then…
Tom Edwards is Monocle 24’s executive producer.