One Small Step

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The 20th of July 2019 will mark the 50th anniversary of the first human landing on the Moon. Ever since Homo sapiens evolved, over 200,000 years ago we have gazed up at the sky and marvelled at our constant companion, the Moon. It really is a fascinating object. It sits in synchronous rotation with Earth, which means that it constantly displays the same face towards us. Relative to the size of its planet, it is the largest satellite in the solar system. Its visual appearance in our sky is virtually the same as that of the Sun. Because it is 400 times smaller and 400 times nearer than the Sun is to Earth. This is why we get eclipses where the Moon perfectly covers the Sun. Its name in English comes from proto-Indo-European linguistic roots meaning ‘month’ or ‘to measure’. As it rotates around us its gravitational pull causes our tides, and it has been associated with affecting human behaviour. This is where the word ‘lunatic’ comes from. It was then no surprise, that as soon as we had the technology to get us there, we had to land someone on it, just because we could.

The combination of technological advances, and the cold war created sufficient impetus to start the Space Race between the USA and the Soviet empire in the 1950s. The fact that both sides were assisted by captured Nazi rocket scientists and technology is often glossed over, but that’s another story. The Soviets won the first round of this nationalistic competition by putting the first manmade satellite, Sputnik, into orbit in 1955. The next round was also won by the Soviets, when in 1961 Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space. But the knock-out blow was the Apollo 11 landing, when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans to walk on the surface of the Moon. The Soviets did keep trying to get there too, but eventually they gave-up. Meaning that it is only the USA that has ever put people on the Moon. In all they made 6 crewed landings between 1969 and 1972. The last man to stand on the Moon’s surface being Eugene Cernan during the Apollo 17 landing of December 1972.

The Space Race had been won, and the USA burnished its nationalistic pride. The USA’s focus then shifted to reusable spacecraft, with the Space Shuttle programme, which was itself terminated by the 1986 Challenger disaster. And then in 1991 the Cold War was over too, so there was no enduring need to go back to the Moon, nor any justification for spending huge sums of money on space exploration. Since then manned space flight has atrophied, although robotic exploration, of Mars in particular, has made some encouraging advances. The void in space exploration, left by the US and Russian governments, is now being filled by the billionaires of the internet age, Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos. Closely pursued by the emerging populous economies of India and China. Who are beginning to flex their nationalistic space muscles too, with adventurous space programmes.

So why is it so important to explore beyond the confines of Earth? Space exploration doesn’t come cheap, and there are many better things right here at home that we could spend the money on. The problem is that we won’t discover new things if we just stay at home. Afterall, we do not know what we do not know. By pushing ourselves forward with more exploration of space we can roll back the boundaries’ of our own ignorance. Necessity is the mother of invention, great advances in technology have been made when people have had a pressing need, or where there was a competitive urge. I hope that the 50th anniversary of one of humanity’s greatest achievements will inspire a new Space Race, so that by the 100th anniversary we can look back on a whole host of new achievements and discoveries. Let’s not make that one small step into space become our last.

“We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” John F Kennedy

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