Monday, July 20, 2009

Moon shot

I was alive but I was too young to remember the first moon landing. But as I was growing up, and definitely before I turned 10, there was a sense that more was to come. A moonbase in 1999 depicted on TV seemed plausible. Casual space travel by 2001 seemed almost under-stating what could be done. Even The Economist feared Europe dropping out of having a role contributing to advancement. Yet here we are. People went to the moon and then did not return for 34 odd years and counting. I do not recall that prediction being made even if there were constant voices against the expense of all of this space travel.

This hit home as I showed my 10 year old daughter this terrific website: It is tracking in 'real time' the whole moon expedition. At any point in time you can see what was going on exactly 40 years ago.

"What's this?"

"It is showing where the lunar lander is. You see, here it is in orbit around the moon. They are about to land."

"What? There are people up there now? Is that possible?"

"No, it is just showing what happened 40 years ago."

"Oh, yes. That's what I thought. We don't do this anymore."

And there you have it. It is hard to have these conversations and feel that somehow we have failed. The current generation believe what is true, that such space travel is as much as a dream as it was prior to the 1960s. I know that some will say that was all well and good given the cost. But the cost of the entire space program over that time, in today's dollars, was $176 billion. And yes, that, in retrospect was too costly. Not because of the resources it took but because the expense surely had value in knowledge created that would built up and lead to greater things. To not have reinvested on the back of that achievement was to erode the capital value of the initial expense. Almost impossible to conceive at the time, the moon landings were a short-term policy and not a serious commitment to the future. It will leave us and the next generation wondering what could have been.