H. G. Wells published his scientific romance The First Men in the Moon in 1901, but it would be another 68 years before a human being took his first tentative step onto the lunar surface. That man was Neil Armstrong and his death at the age of 82 symbolises the end of an era in the manned exploration of space. The moon landing marked an incredible leap in technology coming as it did just 65 years after the Wright brothers made the first powered flight in 1903. It owed as much to the invention of computers as it did to the space race and the two super powers obsession with ever more powerful intercontinental ballistic missiles.
I remember getting up early to watch those grainy, black and white TV pictures from the moon as Neil Armstrong stepped off the ladder and uttered those now famous words, ‘That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.’
A further five landings followed but the American public quickly lost interest after that first lunar walkabout, and the program ended with Apollo 17, and Eugene Cernan has the dubious honour of being the last man on the moon. That was 40 years ago, and with the ending of the shuttle program in 2011, America no longer has a vehicle capable of taking men into space. Ironically they now have to rely on their old protagonists in the space race – the Russians, to transport their astronauts to the International Space Station for them.
Manned spaceflight is an expensive business and for now the machines have taken over. It’s cheaper: they don’t need oxygen, they don’t need feeding or watering. They can work in conditions that would be lethal for humans. But it’s hard to empathise with a machine, and no one who has watched a Saturn V take off, heard the awesome roar of that powerful rocket, could fail to be excited, knowing that there were three flesh and blood human beings sitting on top of it who could be blown to smithereens at any moment, if any one of the thousands of components were to fail.
So far we’ve only explored our own backyard, cosmically speaking. Armstrong and the other eleven Apollo astronauts who have walked on the moon were pioneers. They led the way. Others will follow. There is talk about sending men to Mars, but it will be decades before another human being steps off a ladder and makes the first footprint in the dust of an alien world.
Meanwhile Neil Armstrong, we salute you and all the other astronauts who made that first decade of manned spaceflight so exciting to watch.