Leader: Straight back down to Earth

The Moon landings inspired a generation of scientists, but a cash-strapped UK is unlikely to explore the final frontier

July 16, 2009

It was "the greatest technological project ever undertaken", according to Colin Pillinger, the planetary scientist. It was "an idea so bold, an expedition so audacious, that it inspired a generation", says Kevin Fong, an adviser to the British National Space Centre (BNSC). And in the famous words of Neil Armstrong, who 40 years ago this week became the first human to set foot on the Moon, it was a "giant leap for mankind".

But the Moon landings have long been the source of impassioned debate. Indeed, Fong likens the Apollo programme to Marmite - you either love it or hate it.

For the former group, the project fundamentally added to the sum of human knowledge, as well as providing the inspiration for a generation of scientists. For the latter, it was an expensive folly: costing $1 trillion (£621 billion) in today's money, conceived primarily as the ultimate move in the propaganda war against the Soviet Union, it was a white elephant finally put down by President Nixon in an exercise of admirable realpolitik. Tellingly, it was not until the final landing in 1972 that the first out-and-out scientist (Harrison Schmitt, a geologist) walked on the Moon.

Naturally, the anniversary again raises the question about whether the world - and the UK - needs manned space flight. In 2004, then US President Bush said he would put humanity back on the Moon by 2020, his Constellation project heralding "human missions to Mars and to worlds beyond". But President Obama - otherwise a committed friend of science - is reviewing Constellation's funding, and some in the US openly suggest that China, or even India, will move more quickly than the US.

Early in his tenure, the UK's Science Minister, Lord Drayson, spoke convincingly about how the Moon landings had inspired him at a tender age, and of the power of new missions to reconnect pupils with science. But any suggestion that this meant that the UK was about to back manned space missions was quickly slapped down by the Government.

For word on the UK's future position, the long-awaited report on manned space flight from the BNSC is due out this summer. For fans of an Apollo-inspired approach, the signs are not good.

The BNSC's strategy for 2008-12 made no commitment to manned space flight, and the UK currently makes no contribution to the European Space Agency's (ESA) human-flight programme. Indeed, this absence prompted Jean-Jacques Dordain, the ESA's director-general, to try a bit of cajoling recently. When appointing Timothy Peake, a British candidate, to the agency's astronaut corps in May, Dordain said: "I hope it will now encourage the British ... to contribute. With such a good guy involved, how can they not?"

Sadly, Mr Dordain, with the next Government facing painful spending cuts and competing research priorities, there are plenty of reasons why not. There's such pressure on the UK's science budget that even the Moon Lightweight Interior and Telecom Experiment, the flagship robotic mission, is being held up.

Pressed for subjects fit for "inspirational science" earlier this year, Adrian Smith, the government research czar, said his instinct was not for space but for "saving the planet". Perhaps his instinct is right.

phil.baty@tsleducation.com.

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