Fifty years ago, on 20 July 1969, an achievement now almost unimaginable greeted mankind: the first man to step upon the Moon. The complexity, the lack of room for error, and the precision of calculation which enabled it, are astounding, as are the courage and the confidence of the men who made it happen.
Ours is a timid age which is taught to despise risk or novelty or achievement for achievement’s sake. Those first steps by Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin on the surface of the Moon are of another age alien to our, and which though it was fifty years ago were far in advance of our everyday society.
However engineers have since those days advanced their art far beyond what was available in the 1960s, and although nothing as breathtaking has been done since the last Apollo mission left the Moon, rockets to orbit are now commonplace and there are new entrepreneurs making new ways into space which may one day surpass the achievements of those Americans in 1969.
There has never since been a rocket anything like the size of the Saturn V which Neil Armstrong, Edwin Aldrin and Michael Collins to the Moon, and the Apollo astronauts who followed them, because there has been no need for one: space launches are mainly to low-Earth orbit, with small satellites sent to the higher geo-stationary orbit. The launches to Mars and beyond have been by light probes, requiring less lift and not needing to support the life of a crew. However, ultimately it is a matter of scaling up, and when Elon Musk put a Tesla car in a Falcon Heavy rocket to send it around the Sun, he set a new standard, and practically declared war on the old, limited way of thinking. The new space race is not just for government agencies.
The major government and multi-government agencies have done well – the European Space Agency in spite of the lumbering bureaucracy has actually achieved great things, by leaving the engineers to get on with it. Monopolies though cannot achieve anything beyond what they plan for, and the disruptors have stopped biting at their ankles and started beating them.
Britain has always had an honourable place in space developments, but Britain could do nothing during the space race – the land was so incompetently governed and impoverished by it all that only one satellite was ever successfully launched in a solely British project. Those days are past though. A British project, Skylon, may revolutionise satellite launches and lead the way to further advances. A new spaceport is being built in Sutherland with capability for rocket and spaceplane launches in the specification.
Before we go too far though, we can look at developments in the Commonwealth: India is many years ahead, and the opportunities and expertise in Canada and Australia are astounding. Elon Musk of course is South African. A Commonwealth co-operation begs to be tried.
When Harold Wilson appeared on television in 1969 to congratulate the Americans for their success in landing men on the Moon, he was leading a hopeless, impoverished country further into poverty and hopelessness, and he knew that Britain could not even dream of matching the achievement. That is no longer the case. When the first man, or woman, sets foot on Mars, it is possible that he will be one born and bred under a British heaven and sent their by his fellows, or by the best from around the Commonwealth. The shadow of the last fifty years should not convince us that another nation is inevitably the leader but inspire us to our own achievements and even to surpass that which was done n those days.
- Chasing the Moon: The Story of the Space Race – from Arthur C. Clarke to the Apollo Landings by Robert Stone
- A Man on the Moon: The Voyages of the Apollo Astronauts by Andrew Chaikin
- First on the Moon: The Apollo 11 50th Anniversary Experience by Rod Pyle
- The Japanese Devil Fish Girl and Other Unnatural Attractions by Robert Rankin
- A Fall of Moondust by Arthur C Clarke