Forty-five years ago: FOOTPRINTS FOUND ON MOON
NASA won't be back any time soon, sadly
45 years ago today - that is, July 20th - the human race left its first bootprint on a body other than the Earth we'd been treading for the last few million years, as Neil Armstrong stepped off the Eagle lunar module's ladder and onto the dusty regolith of the Moon.
"That's one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind," Armstrong insisted he said, although the message back to Earth was slightly garbled.
It was an astounding achievement - coming less than 66 years after the Wright Brothers had made their first powered flight and less than a decade after President Kennedy had made his famous declaration at Rice University that the US would put a man on the Moon. It was such an achievement that even now some refuse to believe it took place.
Buzz Aldrin takes a hands-on approach to a Moon hoax moron.
If truth be told the Apollo 11 crew took risks that would probably not even be allowed by NASA today. On its way to the landing site Eagle missed its target, the guidance computer overloaded, and landed just within the allowable limits for fuel. Even getting out of the module was a squeeze, since the engineers hadn't taken into account the width of a redesigned spacesuit.
The Apollo missions took men further from Earth than they'd ever traveled before. Only men mind you – despite female pilots like Jerrie Cobb showing just as much proficiency in tests as the male astronauts NASA insisted that only military pilots could become astronauts back then. We've not sent humans of any gender any further since.
At the time of the Apollo 11 landing science fictions authors like Arthur C. Clarke were predicting lunar colonies by the 1980s and manned missions to Mars at the turn of the millennium. But these failed to come off thanks to a mixture of budget cuts, politics and advances in robotics.
One of the things NASA learned from the Apollo program was how difficult and costly it is to put humans into space and get them back safely. At the same time advances in computer technology and robotics made it cheaper than ever to replace fleshy explorers with digital ones, and that has been the path NASA has taken ever since for exploration.
Sure we had the space shuttle, and astronauts have been orbiting the Earth in low orbit on the International Space Station for nearly 14 years, and on US and Russian space stations before that. But that's been it for humans in space, now the machines have taken over.
There's a certain amount of sense in this approach. You can get a lot more science for your buck using machinery to do your exploring and there have been some notable successes, most recently the Curiosity rover that is currently meandering across Mars. Sending manned missions means less time on the surface than a robot, and a hell of a lot more risk.
It's unlikely that NASA will be putting men back on the Moon any time soon. It would be massively expensive to set up and even more so to supply, and there's not a lot of support for spending a few billion dollars on the project when we could be having foreign wars or banking bailouts delivering vital infrastructure on Earth instead.
That could change if China is serious about setting up a moon base. It's possible that's just chest puffing, but if it is true US politicians are likely to stump up the funding in the spirit of geopolitical competition. The same is true for Mars, particularly with players like Elon Musk getting in the game.
Musk said recently that SpaceX wouldn't exist without NASA and isn’t in competition with the agency. He wants to walk on the sands of Mars himself, and looks likely to do so. But he'll be relying on data from NASA to both land safely and stay alive once there.
The big advantage private operators like Musk have is that they can take a more relaxed view of human life. NASA will not countenance one-way missions, but the private sector will and there's a long list of people willing to make the trip already, not least former Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin.
You'd think that 45 years after the Moon landings humanity would have taken further strides into space, but 45 years from now it is perfectly possible that mankind will have established a colony on another planet or planetoid. It's certainly needed - you can't have a long-term civilization that stays on one planet after all – but it looks likely that the driving force behind such exploration won’t come from NASA. ®