The 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landing

I can’t look at the Moon without being reminded of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin – I’m old enough to remember watching the flickering black and white images of Armstrong taking his ‘one small step’ on TV.

The success of Apollo 11 now seems even more remarkable (and the astronauts even more heroic) given how the mission depended on primitive computing and untested equipment. Despite NASA making every effort to ensure their safety, the Apollo 11 crew was still risking everything by blasting off aboard the enormous Saturn V rocket. Indeed, President Nixon’s speechwriter William Safire had drafted a speech to be given if the astronauts ended up stranded on the lunar surface.

Had the momentum of the space race been maintained, there would surely be footprints on Mars by now. But once that race was won, there was no motivation for continuing the requisite expenditure to send people to the Moon. Hence, it’s been 47 years since a human has ventured beyond Earth’s orbit. But that’s set to change.

Another space race is gearing up, this time between China and America. And there’s also a host of other nations and private enterprises looking to follow in their wake. It seems the rewards of space – knowledge, resources and potentially a long-term future for the human race – are once again worth the expense and risk.

It’s dangerous, however, to think that space offers an escape from Earth’s problems. Any that we don’t face and solve here, we’ll take into space with us. Coping with climate change may seem daunting, but it’s a doddle compared to terraforming Mars. No place in our Solar System offers an environment even as clement as the Antarctic or the top of Everest. There’s no ‘Planet B’ for risk-averse people.

Nevertheless we should celebrate and encourage the new space adventurers, because they will have a pivotal role in shaping what happens in the 22nd Century and beyond. Just as Armstrong, Aldrin and everyone else involved in the Moon landings shaped the 20th Century.

  • Lord Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal and former president of the Royal Society.