I never look at the Moon without being reminded of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin. Their exploits, almost half a century ago, seem even more heroic in retrospect, when we realise how they depended on primitive computing and untested equipment. President Richard Nixon’s speech writer William Safire had even drafted a speech to be given if the astronauts had crash-landed on the Moon or were stranded there: “Fate has ordained that the men who went to the Moon to explore in peace will stay on the Moon to rest in peace. [They] know that there is no hope for their recovery. But they also know that there is hope for mankind in their sacrifice.”
The night sky has inspired wonder and mystery throughout human history. The uncharted universe is vast, and we can bring some of its mysteries closer. But taking into account the advance of technology and artificial intelligence (AI), as well as the gains and losses from space exploration, I believe it is the “post-human” chapter of space that holds the greatest possibilities for our future.
The Apollo programme was the culmination of 12 years of space exploits. The Soviet Sputnik 1 took off in 1957; a month later, a dog was sent up. Four years after that, Yuri Gagarin became the first man to go into orbit — and a global celebrity. He was mobbed by crowds when he visited Britain (though Harold Macmillan, prime minister at the time, sardonically noted that “there would have been twice the crowds if they’d sent the dog”). Armstrong’s feat, as depicted by Ryan Gosling in the forthcoming film First Man, came only eight years later. It is a moving and authentic portrayal of the undemonstrative self-control crucial for Armstrong’s success.
In the 1960s there was a “space race” against the Soviet Union — a contest in superpower rivalry. Had that momentum been maintained, there would surely be human footprints on Mars by now; that’s what my generation expected. However, once that race was won, there was no motivation for continuing the requisite expenditure. In the 1960s, Nasa absorbed more than 4 per cent of the US federal budget. The current figure is 0.6 per cent.
Hundreds more have ventured into space since Armstrong and Aldrin — but, anticlimactically, they have done no more than circle the Earth in low orbit. The International Space Station (ISS) was probably the most expensive artefact ever constructed. Its cost, plus that of the Space Shuttles whose main purpose was to service it (though they have now been decommissioned), ran well into 12 figures. The scientific and technical pay-off from the station hasn’t been negligible, but it has proved less cost-effective than unmanned missions. Nor are these voyages inspiring in the way that the pioneering Soviet and US space exploits were.
The ISS makes news only when something goes wrong: when the loo fails, for instance; or when astronauts perform “stunts”, such as the Canadian Chris Hadfield playing guitar and singing David Bowie songs.
The hiatus in manned space flight exemplifies that when there’s no economic or political demand, there’s a big lag between what is actually done and what could be achieved.
Space technology has nonetheless flourished in the past four decades. We depend routinely on orbiting satellites for communication, satnav, environmental monitoring, surveillance and weather forecasting. Space telescopes orbiting far above the blurring and absorptive effects of Earth’s atmosphere have beamed back images from the remotest cosmos. They have surveyed the sky in infrared, UV, X-ray and gamma ray bands that don’t penetrate the atmosphere and therefore can’t be observed from the ground. They have revealed evidence for black holes and other exotica and have probed with high precision the “afterglow of creation” — the microwaves pervading space whose properties hold clues to the very beginning, when the entire observable cosmos was squeezed to microscopic size.