Since the media have been banging on about it all week, as have various other bloggers, I suppose I should at least mention that today (16th July 2009) is the fortieth anniversary of the launch of NASA’s Apollo 11 mission which put the first man on the Moon. I’m reliably informed that the picture on the left shows the second man on the Moon, Buzz Aldrin, although I don’t think the costume gives much clue to the identity of the wearer.
My response to the media furore is muted because I’m decidedly ambivalent about the whole business of manned space exploration. I’m not going to be churlish and say that all the Apollo missions did was provide America with a much-needed propaganda victory during the Cold War. I think it’s true that putting a man on the Moon was a great achievement in terms of ingenuity and organization. It’s probably also true that it inspired many people to go into science who otherwise wouldn’t have done so. I’d even say that the sight of Earth from the Moon marked the beginning of a new age of awareness of the fragility of our own existence on our home planet and, perhaps even a step towards our coming-of-age as a species.
The reason I am ambivalent, however, is that the scientific returns from the Apollo missions were entirely negligible, at least in terms of value for money, partly because the Apollo missions weren’t really designed to do science in the first place and partly because the Moon just isn’t very interesting…
Mankind hasn’t returned to the Moon since the Apollo series came to an end. That’s not a matter for regret, just a reflection of the fact that there isn’t much to be found there. In those forty years astronomy and space science have moved on immeasurably through spaceborne observatories and unmanned probes. We have learned far more about the Universe those ways than could ever be achieved by sending a few people to collect rocks from a dull piece of rubble in our backyard. In the process, the Universe has grown in size relative to the scale possible to reach by human engineering projects. The last forty years has shown us that, in retrospect, going to the Moon wasn’t really all that impressive compared to what we can find out by remote means.
Unfortunately there appears to be an increasingly vocal lobby in favour of diverting funds from fundamental science into manned space exploration, much of it aimed at the goal of putting a person on Mars. This has not yet resulted in a commitment by the United Kingdom government to join in manned space exploration, but it is worrying that the Chief Executive of the Science & Technology Facilities Council is a failed astronaut who I fear sees this as an attractive option. Even more worryingly, Science Minister Lord Drayson seems to be keen too. It’s up to scientists to present the case to government for maintaining investment in fundamental science and against having the budget plundered to play Star Trek.
The European Space Agency‘s Aurora programme is intended to culminate with a manned trip to Mars, at an overall cost of over £30 billion. One of the arguments I hear over and over again in favour of this programme is that it will inspire young people to take up science, especially physics. Well, maybe. But people can’t become scientists unless they have the opportunity to learn science at School and there is a drastic shortage of physics teachers these days. What’s the point of being inspired if you can’t get the education anyway? You could train an awful lot of school teachers for a small fraction of the Aurora budget. And what’s the point of inspiring people to take up astronomy and space science when you’re also busy slashing the budget for research and ending the careers of those excellent scientists we’ve already got?
So by all means let’s celebrate the marvellous achievements of 1969, but let’s move on and not pretend that there is any good scientific reason for repeating them.