Man’s first steps on the Moon seemed like the beginning of an extraordinary new chapter for humanity. But 50 years after the Apollo 11 space mission, our dreams of travelling further afield may never become a realityby Frank Close / December 11, 2018 / Leave a comment
On 21st July 1969, the world was transfixed as Neil Armstrong took his “giant leap for mankind” and stepped on to the surface of the Moon. In the United Kingdom viewers huddled around their new colour television sets, only to discover that the lunar images were in a grainy black and white. In other corners of the Earth these were the first images people had seen on any television. I seem to have been one of the few who missed it. In that pre-internet age I was out of contact, in an old propeller-driven aeroplane, quite unlike the Concorde which had taken its first test flight just a few months before Armstrong’s adventure.
My own memory of that era, when science assumed its most dominant position in the collective imagination and the promise of technology seemed limitless, is of seven months earlier—Christmas Eve, 1968. On that day William Anders, an astronaut on the Apollo 8 mission that circumnavigated the Moon, captured “the most influential environmental photograph ever taken.” His snap revealed a stark barren moonscape, while above the horizon, against the black void of limitless space, hovered the blue jewel of Earth. The image encapsulated our planet’s vulnerability and would in time inspire the beginning of the environmental movement.
Within just a year of Armstrong’s climactic achievement, Robert Frosch, the Nasa administrator, announced there would be no missions beyond those already planned. On 14th December 1972, Gene Cernan became the 12th astronaut to step on this lump of rock, whose surface area is similar to that of Africa and—though nobody could have imagined it at the time—nearly 50 years later he is still the last moonwalker. Apollo provided only the most fleeting disturbance to a silent barren desert: none of the original dozen stayed for more than 75 hours. The Moon never did become a holiday destination, or a stepping stone to what lay beyond.
Flight of faith
At some $500m—in late-1960s dollars—per shot, each Apollo Moon landing cost as much as a year’s research by the National Science Foundation. In the accountancy of scientific advances per dollar invested, there was no contest. On average, each year, five Nobel prizes in physics, chemistry and medicine celebrate research funded at least in part by the foundation.…