As a 30-something, I grew up with the Moon landing firmly established in the collective mind, yet equally firmly it was a thing of the past. The names of the pioneers who made the first adventurous journeys into space and all the way to the Moon – John Glenn, Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin – rang familiar, but as Europeans we could never claim any of them as our national heroes as in the US. But as Armstrong’s famous words as he became the first human to step onto the lunar surface inspired the name for my blog, I feel I should write something here in respect of his passing, last week, at the age of 82.
It’s hard to imagine what the space race must have felt like to those living in that era. I gained a huge amount of appreciation for the space programme and the first astronauts (and kosmonauts!) after reading The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe. This book, which chronicles this era of competition and discovery, talks about the early astronauts as people and as pilots, which most of them were before heading into space. Pilots were technically already flying in space, or very close to it at least, using state-of-the-art military jets, and some of the frist astronauts were disappointed that as astronauts they weren’t actually getting to “fly” anything initially. Instead, they were more or less being catapulted into space in tiny capsules and free-falling back down again. A monkey could do it. In fact, a monkey did do it.
Incidentally, human safety in space became highly topical in the wake of the Shuttle accidents, Challenger in 1986 and Columbia in 2003. But compared with the safety of the test pilots who became the first astronauts, space travel wasn’t so risky.
To get a good feel of what it might have been like to witness the first Moon landings from here on Earth, I recommend watching The Dish. It’s a super sweet film set in the Australian town of Parkes, which hosts a well-know radio telescope that becomes a hub of excitement as the Moon landings approach. It’s really funny and it left me feeling a little bit of the wonder and amazement that the those witnessing it from their living rooms.
I’ve never been quite sure where I stand on human spaceflight. In the last week, many have talked about what a shame it is we haven’t visited the Moon in such a long time, or explored further afield in the Solar System. Should we send humans to Mars? It would undoubtedly be an awesome achievement and a huge inspiration to all here on Earth. But the cost of human missions compared with robotic ones is enormous. There’s also an ethical question: how do we ensure that we don’t interfere with the solar system’s own ecosystem by going there? How do we prevent contamination of these other worlds, that may be even more fragile than our own? This is an important discussion to have, particularly in the context of human spaceflight, but for robotic landers as well.
But it’s clear that, without the courage of early pioneers like Neil Armstrong, who continued to inspire many people all over the world long after they walked on the Moon, we might not be having these debates at all.