If you believe they put a man on the Moon

Eugene Cernan: last man to stand (or drive) on the Moon (photo Harrison Schmitt, NASA)

Earlier this year was the glorious fortieth anniversary of the first Moon landing. Today marks the rather more ignominious occasion of humans (I could still simply write “Man”) leaving the Moon for the last time. On this day in 1972, Apollo 17’s Eugene Cernan and Harrison “Jack” Schmitt lifted off from the Mare Serenitatis and the first chapter of the Space Age ended, leaving the rest of the book unwritten.

It was claimed that, reaching the Moon was somehow an end in itself and that, less than four years on, the public had become as bored of the whole incredible affair as the politicians. In the many years since, all we’ve done is send a few robot explorers into the solar system and some people into low Earth orbit, most recently to the International Space Station (ISS). Anyone who thinks the ISS is a long way away should realize the Moon is a thousand times further – it seems almost as out of reach today as when President Kennedy made his famous speech in 1961.

Of course it’s right to scoff at the witless lunatics who disbelieve the whole glorious adventure. Even now, mirrors left behind by the crew of Apollo 11 can be used by anyone around the world with the right equipment to bounce lasers back and forth to measure the distance between us with great precision. Yet it was such a stand out achievement that you can almost understand why some, who weren’t alive at the time, are a little incredulous. The pace of technological advance appears so tremendous, yet we’re unable to repeat what we achieved all those decades ago.

At least now a return is being mooted, even if driven by a second space race. The West is being overtaken as the world’s economic powerhouse and there’s no better national symbol to prove it than to send a new generation of humanity a step further out and plant a new flag on another world. And the West is responding by dusting off plans and also looking to go back – I suspect (and hope) we’ll all end up pooling resources and journeying together.

the Moon combined with background stars (double exposure, NASA)

If we’re to survive as a species then one thing is certain – we need to colonize space. Failure to do so, simply keeping all our eggs in this one basket here on Earth, means we’ll one day be wiped out. It might happen next year (let’s hope not!) or it might take a few thousand years, but the simple rules of probability, coupled with the global catastrophic risks, make it certain. While I’m sad I won’t see it myself, I long for a day of human colonies around the galaxy, embassies on alien worlds, spaceships with mixed human and alien crews exploring together and witnessing sights we can’t even begin to dream of. I’ve always loved the words of my hero, Carl Sagan, who said:

“The surface of the Earth is the shore of the cosmic ocean. From it, we have learned most of what we know. Recently, we have waded a little out to sea, enough to dampen out toes or, at most, wet our ankles. The water seems inviting. The ocean calls. Some part of our being knows this is from where we came. We long to return.”

It’s thirty-seven years since we left the Moon – I hope it doesn’t take us so long again to return and that, when we do, we don’t stop but instead use our handily placed satellite as a stepping stone to begin our great journey to the stars.

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~ by keithmansfield on December 14, 2009.

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