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Twenty-five years after a man first walked on the moon, John Gillott and Manjit Kumar argue that today's lack of enthusiasm for space exploration is symptomatic of a malaise on Earth

To boldly go... home?

'Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.' It was 20:17 hours and 43 seconds Greenwich Mean Time, on 20 July 1969. Half an hour later, Neil Armstrong emerged in his spacesuit and descended the 10ft metal ladder to the lunar surface. Watched by a TV audience of over 600m, he became the first man on the moon. 'That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.'

Armstrong was soon joined by Buzz Aldrin for the remainder of his two-and-a-half hour 'moon walk', to complete the serious business at hand - unfurling the US flag. Before leaving for the biggest ticker-tape parade in history, they collected 44lbs of moon rock, deployed a few experiments and unveiled a plaque - 'Here men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the moon, July 1969AD' - for the benefit of any passing ET conversant with the Christian calendar.

Back then, space exploration captured the public imagination, the American government backed the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) with energy and cash, and most of Nasa's missions succeeded. Today the public only tunes in when there is a disaster, governments lack the will and the cash to sponsor major projects in space, and it seems that most things which could go wrong with Nasa's projects do.

So what has happened? Space is still up there, waiting to be explored. What has changed is the mood down here. The way we feel about space at any time reflects the way we feel about ourselves and our abilities on Earth. The loss of faith in space exploration reflects the more downbeat outlook of our times.

In the 1960s, the USA and other Western societies were at the end of the most sustained economic boom in history. Governments had more confidence in their own abilities, and people were better-disposed to experimenting with new projects. For a brief moment space exploration seemed to symbolise the potential for achievement, the ability of humanity to shape the future and stamp its will on uncharted worlds. The original TV Star Trek was based on the premise that the essence of humanity was to experience the new, 'to boldly go where no man has gone before'.

Twenty-five years later, after more than two decades of recession, the picture has changed dramatically. Society is much less optimistic and confident, less inclined to experiment, scornful of anything that implies planning into the future. Public views of space reflect these changed times. The dominant feeling is that we are an insignificant species drifting on a small and fragile planet in a tiny corner of the universe, and should worry about the survival of our own world rather than cosmic expansion. The new version of Star Trek - The Next Generation - is a 1990s soap opera in space, complete with counsellors. Just as lost souls go on month-long treks to the Himalayas in a futile quest to 'find themselves', so the crew of The Next Generation gaze at their navels as they drift among the stars.

When the crew of Apollo 1 died on the launch-pad in 1967, it was generally seen as a price worth paying for human exploration. By contrast the death of the Challenger crew in 1986 was widely taken as symbolising the folly of human ambitions in space, even if it was, in fact, the result of Nasa cost-cutting.

The complaint about space exploration used to be that the Apollo missions were a waste of money which should be spent on solving problems down here. Tony Benn recalled recently how a constituent of his in 1969 asked why we could put people on the moon, but couldn't run a decent bus service in Bristol. These responses reflected the belief that society could tackle social problems. Today, it is more common to see both space exploration and the idea of fighting to abolish poverty dismissed as human hubris. The death of ambition in space is of a piece with low horizons about what humanity can achieve on earth.

Space missions do continue, of course. Nasa is currently engaged in a wide range of scientific, commercial, and military projects. Some of these are noteworthy efforts - the observation of space from telescopes in orbit, the exploration of the solar system, the study of the Earth from space ('Mission to Planet Earth'). Whatever happens to such scientific projects, commercial and military uses of space will keep Nasa (and its equivalents in other countries) going, come what may. But these bits and pieces cannot alter the fact that Nasa is in a strategic dead-end.

When the Apollo missions came to an end in 1972, Nasa prioritised two future projects - the space Shuttle, and a permanent manned space station in Earth orbit. The Shuttle would ferry materials and personnel to the station, which would provide the base for manned exploration of the solar system. Both projects have turned out to be disasters. The Shuttle was a flop well before Challenger exploded. Originally budgeted at $5.6 billion in 1972, the cost of the Shuttle had risen to $30 billion (in 1972 dollars) by 1986. It was supposed to fly up to 60 missions a year; it managed nine in 1985, its best year. But at least the Shuttle got off the ground. Construction of the space station has not even begun. It seems certain to be scrapped, and may already have been so by the time you read this article.

Some of Nasa's problems are internally generated. But most are the product of a shift in government policy. Like public attitudes, government policies towards space are shaped by events on Earth. The moonshot was a product of the Cold War. In the new circumstances of the 1990s, space exploration is low on the American elite's list of priorities.

In a speech before a joint session of congress on 25 May 1961, President John F Kennedy spelled out America's mission:

'This nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before the decade is out, of landing a man on the moon, and returning him safely to Earth. No single space project will be more important to mankind or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish.'

Just a couple of years earlier, President Eisenhower had dismissed the notion of a moon mission: 'I'd rather have a good Redstone [missile delivery rocket] than hit the moon. I don't think we have an enemy on the moon!' When he came into office in 1961, Kennedy shared this assessment. Within four months, he was persuaded otherwise by some worrying developments.

The launch-pad for American ambitions in space was the recession of 1958--the first since before the Korean War arms build-up of 1950. Could the terrible 1930s return? they worried. For the next three years Soviet successes in space and elsewhere became the prism through which the American elite's insecurities were expressed. This crisis of confidence brought Kennedy into the White House, and soon led him to launch the Apollo programme.

America's leaders were worried men in the early sixties; but they still had the resources and the confidence in their own ability to get out and do something about their problems. Kennedy was converted to the Apollo mission after Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin went into orbit in April 1961, and the American government was humiliated by the failure of its attempt to invade Fidel Castro's Cuba at the Bay of Pigs. Is there any space programme, Kennedy asked vice-president Lyndon Johnson, 'which promises dramatic results in which we could win?'. And so the mission to the moon was born with Kennedy's bold speech the next month, as a way of reasserting US leadership in the world by demonstrating that America could get things done.

After the Cold War, the US government's primary motivation for space exploration has disappeared. And so has its will to boldy go. Today the American government is much more insecure than it was 30 years ago, and lacks the resolve or the resources to carry through major space projects. Where Kennedy could stride into the unknown in an attempt to resolve his difficulties, Bill Clinton can only batten down the hatches. In June 1984, Ronald Reagan declared that within a decade a space station would be built. It will be ironic if it is formally killed off exactly 10 years later. In 1988, Bush said America would plant a man on Mars within 50 years. Clinton has now cancelled the project.

The death of ambition in space reflects the US authorities' loss of faith across the range of science issues. In 1991, Leon Lederman, Nobel Laureate and incoming head of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, penned a provocative piece entitled 'Science: the end of the frontier?'. 'Once upon a time American science sheltered an Einstein, went to the moon, and gave the world the laser, the electronic computer, nylon, television, the cure for polio, and observations of our planet's location in an expanding universe', noted Lederman. His question was, what can America give in the future if it has lost the ambition to explore?

The message from government and others today is that we should forget about bold space projects and settle for observation of the heavens and Earth. A 1991 Economist survey observed that 'dreams are the hardest things to kill' but insisted that ambitions in space must be killed, because we don't know why we should go there and we can't afford the ticket. Indicative of the drift in government circles is the fact that George Brown, chairman of the US House Science, Space and Technology Committee, has come out against the space station he once championed.

So is there a case for space exploration today? The astronomer Ian Crawford argues that human colonisation of space is a necessity since some day the sun will expand and burn up the Earth. Correct as his point is, this is, of course, a very long way off. There are some more immediate reasons for space exploration.

Even if there were no other reason, it would be worth supporting space exploration simply to raise people's expectations of what is possible, and to combat the mood of pessimism in society. For centuries mankind has dreamed of exploring the heavens. Italian philosopher Giordano Bruno wrote these lines in 1584:

'Henceforth I spread confident wings to space; / I fear no barrier of crystal or of glass; / I cleave the heavens and soar to the infinite. / And while I rise from my own globe to others / And penetrate ever further through the eternal field, / That which others saw from afar, I leave far behind me.'

Bruno was burned at the stake by the Papal authorities for his dreams. It would be cruelly ironic if we abandoned those ambitions now, when, thanks to Bruno and those who came after him, we have a far better understanding of our position in the universe and are on the verge of acquiring the technical ability to 'cleave the heavens'.

There are some good practical reasons for space exploration. The most immediate gain is the new technology we are forced to develop in order to get up there. While it is a myth that Teflon was developed for the Apollo missions, many more important products in circulation now are spin-offs from space research. In particular, the moon mission opened the modern age of micro-electronics, the effects of which we all feel today. Research to build a reusable space rocket in America (still at the prototype stage, and threatened by funding cuts) has created even better alloys and other materials which will find wide application soon.

Beyond these spin-offs, the more important point is that we don't know what we might find or develop in the future. Space exploration is all about opening humanity up to the unknown. As the astronomer Frank Drake puts it: 'space provides us with an endless frontier: an endless supply of new places to explore, new adventures, new things we have never seen before, new sources of joy, perhaps even new sources of fear.'

If instead the old fears are to prevail, and space exploration is to be ruled out, where will the line be drawn? Why not abandon all forms of exploration and experimentation in the realms of the unknown? Why not abandon the study of the oceans? In fact, why not abandon the study of anything else at all if humanity has no idea of what it might lead to? Let's just dismiss the foresight of a supporter of space colonisation like Ian Crawford as idle day-dreaming, and instead settle down in the 'real world' with a mug of tea to watch endless repeats of Neighbours.

A know-nothing, try-nothing attitude is seeping into science policy and practice today on both sides of the Atlantic: not only space exploration, but any area of science is under threat if it does not address known applications and possibilities and deliver a short-term profit. It is a sad comment on those who rule the Earth that they want to close off the 'endless frontier' before we have even begun to explore it.

Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 69, July 1994

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