The Romance of Space-Exploration
In memory of Neil Armstrong (August 5, 1930 – August 25, 2012) the first human being to step onto another world. CJ Stone considers the economics and the romance of space exploration. Is it worth the cost?
Science and Romance
It's happened a couple of times recently. There's been an item on the news about a NASA space programme and whoever it is sitting with me - my Mum on one occasion, my brother-in-law on another - has made a disparaging remark. "A waste of money," they say. "They should be spending that money on Earth."
There are several NASA missions going on currently.
There's a Mars mission, with a little robot called Phoenix wandering around chewing up bits of the Martian landscape to bring back to Earth; there's a satellite called Cassini doing loop-the-loops around the Saturn system, peering at its moons; and there's a new telescope which was launched recently, called GLAST - which stands for Gamma-ray Large Area Telescope - which is scouring deep space for radiation blasted from the super-concentrated black holes which are thought to exist in the heart of every galaxy.
I don't know. Aren't you excited by this? The very idea of space exploration is the epitome of romance to me.
In my imagination there's a part of me out there wandering in the infinite desolation of space with these machines. They are remote control vehicles for the strange miracle we call life from this oasis, the Earth.
The Shadow of the Moon
There was a great movie on Channel 4 recently, called In The Shadow of the Moon, about the Moon landings.
It contains archive footage of the nine missions that went to the Moon between 1968 and 1972, plus interviews with some of the guys who took part.
There's something about those men. A quality. A presence. A sense of wonder. It's as if, having stepped upon the surface of the Moon, having felt its gravitational embrace, they have left something of themselves back there which still speaks to them through all that distance of time and space.
A friend of mine, Fraser, went to the NASA museum in Washington to see the bit of Apollo 11 that came back. He told me they have a Lunar Lander there and that the controls are amazingly simple - winding handles with cords attached. "This was the sixties," Fraser told me, "everything was mechanical. It looked a bit like the inside of somebody's shed. Can you imagine how brave those chaps were? They were further away than virtually anybody had ever been, dependent on bits of string to land their spaceship."
These men are the only human beings ever to have visited the Moon.
They are the only ones to have seen the Earth from another world.
Here are some descriptions of the experience by the men who went there.
"I felt that I was literally standing on a plateau some where out there in space, a plateau that science and technology had allowed me to get to, but now what I was seeing, and even more important, what I was feeling, at that moment in time, science and technology had no answers for, because there I was, and there you are, the Earth, dynamic, overwhelming, and I felt that the world has too much purpose, too much logic, was just too beautiful to have happened by accident, there has to be somebody bigger than you and bigger than me, and I mean this in a spiritual sense not a religious sense, there has to be a creator of the universe that stands above the religions that we ourselves create to govern our lives." Gene Cernan, Apollo 10 & 17.
"The fact that just from the distance of the Moon you could put your thumb up, and you could hide the Earth behind your thumb. Everything that you've ever known... all behind your thumb, and how insignificant we really all are; but then how fortunate we are to have this body and to be able to enjoy living here amongst the beauty of the Earth itself." Jim Lovell, Apollo 8 & 13.
"It truly is an oasis, and we don't take very good care of it, and the elevation of that awareness is a real contribution to saving the Earth itself." Dave Scott, Apollo 9 & 15.
You see, I think the economics behind my Mum and my brother-in-law's argument is wrong.
It's not a case of money being better spent anywhere else. There's a sound argument, put forward by respected economist John Maynard Keynes, that says the economic system needs to be primed from the collective purse continually for it to survive, and that research and development of cutting-edge technology filters down into innovations that benefit us all. It's how computers came about remember.
It's also question of what you think science is for.
At the moment the bulk of public money allocated to science is spent on figuring out better ways of blowing people up, while private capital is spent discovering exciting new ways of mixing avocado oil with conditioner to make your hair more shiny.
Me, I'd rather money was spent peering into the depths of time and space looking for black holes, and maybe, one day, going back to the Moon again.
Maybe this time we can build a Moon Base there.
Mike Collins, who, along with Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin was on the Apollo 11 mission, said this: "After the flight the three of us went on an around the world trip. Wherever we went, people, instead of saying, 'well you Americans did it', everywhere they said, 'we did it,' - we human kind, we the human race, we people did it. I'd never heard people in different countries use this world 'we' - we, we, we - as emphatically as we were hearing from Europeans, Asians, Africans, wherever we went, 'we finally did it', and I thought that was a wonderful thing."
That was the power the Moon landings had to bring the people of the Earth together.
Given the amount of money currently being spent on blowing up kids and their families in Iraq and Afghanistan, don't you think it is time we allowed ourselves to dream again?
© 2008 Christopher James Stone