Here are two responses to the Apollo moon landings. First, Richard Nixon’s famous address on the optimism that the moon landings inspired:
Because of what you have done, the heavens have become a part of man’s world. As you talk to us from the Sea of Tranquility, it inspires us to redouble our efforts to bring peace and tranquility to Earth. For one priceless moment, in the whole history of man, all the people on this Earth are truly one.
The moon landings are probably the foremost example of what can be achieved when humans endeavour to co-operate. It is a story that has everything: from the insights of Gallileo and Newton; the imagination of Jules Verne; to the Leadership of Kennedy; to the bravery of Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins; to the scholarship at MIT that built the computer guidance systems on the Apollo craft; to quick thinking of Jack Garman and Steve Bales, who made a correct, key decision regarding some obscure computer error codes, as Neil Armstrong’s Eagle hovered over the moon’s surface.
However, the poet Gil Scott-Heron was not impressed. He penned this indignant plea to spend the money on something different:
Was all that money I made las’ year
(for Whitey on the moon?)
How come there ain’t no money here?
(Hmm! Whitey’s on the moon)
Y’know I jus’ ’bout had my fill
(of Whitey on the moon)
I think I’ll sen’ these doctor bills,
(to Whitey on the moon)
While it is surely worth a few billion dollars to bring mankind together as one, it is a lofty and imprecise ideal. Scott-Heron’s words ring in the ears, and anyone who is eager to journey back to the moon in our lifetime, or perhaps even to Mars, will have to justify the expense.
As I have said before, I begin with the idea that if one is going to design and build rockets, it would be more satisfying if we were to put astronauts in them, rather than nuclear warheads. It would also be more exciting, and (I think) more healthy for the collective human psyche. Spending several billions on “an ego trip” (as Bob Marley sang it), is a reprehensible thing when compared to the need for schools, a health system here in the UK, or AIDS medicines and mosquito nets in Africa. But compared to Trident, which is designed for the singular purpose of destruction, it is easier to argue that it would be money well spent.
Cancelling Trident and creating a bona fide British Space Programme would surely be an easy task, since the skills required for one project are easily transferred to the other. There is a place for rocket scientists and computer guidance systems engineers. And surely submariners would make perfect astronauts, accustomed as they are to spending long periods of time sealed in claustrophobic capsules?
Supporters of the nuclear deterrent remind us that for Britain to maintain an influence on the international arena, we need to be members of the nuclear ‘club’. Much of the argument is over what strategic advantage the submarines give us (if any), and whether it is relevant when our arsenal is dwarfed by that of the United States. Clearly if we were to cancel Trident in favour of a space programme, that programme would fare better politically and economically if it had some strategic importance too. Indeed, although the American’s cited the noble causes of ‘discovery’ and ‘wonder’ as the justification for their Apollo Programmes, the scientific and military imperatives were just as strong – As were the propaganda benefits.
One strategic project could be a replacement for the Galileo Project, the European satellite-navigation system that intended to rival the USA’s Global Positioning Satellites. The Galileo Project is in crisis, and it needs to be either replaced or reinvigorated. OK, so it is not quite an Apollo Mission… but the creation of a strategic technology that can be used in peace-time as well as war, seems to be a more imaginative side-step for a country like Britain, and certainly a better use of our rocket fuel. Once we’ve succeeded in that arena, we can set our sights higher, to the stars.