One small step for man, one giant leap for robots

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From Sunday’s paper: We have built things that are better than us at exploring space

Forty years ago today, a manned spacecraft was flying, at an average speed of almost a mile a second, towards another world. Two days later, Apollo 17 would land on the Moon, and its crew would spend three days on the surface. And then they would leave. And humanity would never again slip the surly bonds of Earth.

You may not have realised, but the Apollo missions were the only time in history that human beings left Earth’s orbit. In the four decades since, if the Earth were the size of an apple, we’d have been stuck about the thickness of its skin from the surface. This week, it’s been reported that Eugene Cernan, Apollo 17’s commander, left his camera on the Moon, its lens staring into space; he hoped it would be retrieved by future astronauts, and the effect of cosmic radiation on its glass could be examined. Barring meteorite strikes, it is still there, undisturbed. Three more missions to the Moon were scrapped and Nasa’s budget was cut. Today, as far as the world is concerned, the “golden age of space travel” is over.

That’s true, in a sense. Nothing so remarkable, so front-page-grabbing as the Moon landings has happened since. There are moments in history that immediately divide time into “before” and “after”; the September 11 attacks, the Kennedy shooting, the start and end of the world wars. Landing on the Moon – starting with Apollo 11 in 1969 – was one of those. The images that the Moon men sent back, of Earth hanging like a jewel in space, of a man stepping on to an alien world, would be included in even the briefest illustrated history of the 20th century. By comparison, the space probes to the outer planets, the Mars missions, even Voyager leaving the solar system, seem prosaic, underwhelming.

In an unobtrusive way, however, we are living right now in a period of space travel just as important as the “golden age”. It might not have quite the same visual impact – although I would ask you to look at the most famous image taken by the unmanned Cassini space probe, of Saturn backlit by the Sun, its rings glowing ethereally against the blackness, and see how you feel then – but in terms of scientific impact, we are learning more now than we did then. And in the main, we’re learning it not by sending people – fragile, valuable people – but by sending robots.

At this very moment, a one-ton, nuclear-powered, six-wheeled robotic behemoth is trundling around Mars, finding evidence that water once flowed on the surface, looking for signs of life. Closer to home, the Kepler telescope is finding planets orbiting other stars. When Commander Cernan left the Moon, the existence of planets outside our own solar system was pure speculation. It wasn’t until 2003 that the first one was confirmed; now 853 are known. The aforementioned Cassini has shown us images of storms on Saturn 5,000 miles wide and seas of liquid methane on Titan, and tested Einstein’s theory of relativity by pinging radio waves back to Earth. (Einstein was right, by the way.) This week, Voyager 1 found an unexpected new layer of the solar system. Man’s mechanical avatars are everywhere, learning.

None of this is to say that grand space projects aren’t worthwhile. Perhaps an  international effort to get humanity to Mars would be valuable, bringing the world together as the Moon landings are said to have done. Another suggestion, by the writer Alex Hern, is to build a space elevator – a cable, 60,000 miles long, attached to an orbiting station, which would suddenly put space within easy reach, with no dangerous rockets. It’s within current technologies, but would be a vast project: one, perhaps, as memorable as the Apollos.

But whether we do that or not, it’s simply wrong to claim, as many do, that we gave up on space. We didn’t: we just built things that are better than us at exploring it, and, sensibly, we sent them instead. The golden age is still going on.


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