Thirty years on: was it really such a giant step - or just moonshine?

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The Independent Online
IT WAS one of the greatest achievements of the 20th century and marked the point at which human beings for the first time in history broke free from the gravity of Earth.

When Neil Armstrong first stepped foot on to the surface of the Moon 30 years ago next Tuesday, he fulfilled the promise of President John F Kennedy for the United States to be the first nation to conquer another celestial body. If the US was to show the world that it was capable of building a giant rocket, with metal alloys not yet invented and fitted together with the precision of a wrist watch, "and to do all this, and do it right and do it first before this decade is out, then we must be bold", he told the American public in 1961.

Eight years later, Armstrong, and his fellow Apollo 11 astronaunts, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins, went on a daring mission to land on a barren lump of rock 240,000 miles away, which took three days travelling at more than five miles a second.

As a politically inspired goal, motivated by superpower rivalry at the height of the Cold War, the mission had more to do with technological prestige and supremacy, than furthering scientific knowledge.

"I think no one will claim that the Apollo programme was motivated by science, it was done for national pride. We remember it as a technological and human achievement," said Sir Martin Rees, the Astronomer Royal.

Yet sending men to the Moon enthralled the world and spawned a fascination with the deeper mysteries of space and our own planet.

The Moon landings became deeply engrained in popular culture, with Armstrong's first words - "one small step for man, one giant leap for Mankind" - becoming the most famous quote of the century.

Yet, curiously, when the Apollo missions came to an end in the early Seventies, there were no further plans to send humans to the Moon and beyond.

Dan Goldin, the head of the American National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa), the only organisation capable of sending men to other planetary bodies, has ruled out the possibility. "Unless the nation is willing to spend billions of dollars a year extra, we're not going to Mars. We're not going to have a colony on the Moon. It's plain and simple dollars and cents. It will take a national will to do it," Dr Goldin said.

The simple fact is that sending men to the Moon was one of the most costly, non-military exercises ever undertaken and it could only have been done in the deeply competitive atmosphere of Cold War rivalry.

For the costs involved, we may not have got much out of going to the Moon, but it became the inspiration for 30 years of space research and with it a deeper understanding of our place in the Universe.

Leading article, Review, page 3

Profile, Review, page 5

the universe

GOING INTO space has revealed deep insights into the origin of the Universe, the evolution of the stars and galaxies and the physical nature of a nearest planetary neighbours.

The Hubble Space Telescope the first instrument to observe the heavens from space, has allowed astronomers to witness cosmic phenomena as they unfolded, such as dust storms on Mars, the formation of stars and the disintegration of a comet as it thumped into Jupiter.

"There has been a great benefit to astronomy in getting above the interference caused by the Earth's atmosphere and clearly we've learnt a lot from space," said Sir Martin Rees, the Astronomer Royal.

Instruments on the many unmanned space probes have lifted the lid on many of the greatest mysteries. Arguably the most important discovery came from measurements made by the Cobe satellite in 1992 which revealed the existence of the microwave background radiation caused by the Big Bang - the echo of creation itself. We have also seen the immense diversity of topography and environment of our closest planetary neighbours, including the dramatic discovery of a frozen ocean on Europa, the fourth largest moon of Jupiter.

Future missions over the next 10 years - including plans to bring Martian rock to Earth and to send a submarine robot to Europa, should finally solve the controversy of whether there is life beyond Earth and so answer the question: are we alone?

the inventions

CONTRARY TO widespread belief, the space race did not give us the non-button fastening Velcro, or the non-stick material Teflon: those were devised in 1948 and 1938 respectively, in non-defence research.

How about mylar, the plastic coated with a microscopically thin film of metal? That was a known technology in the 1950s - but like Velcro and Teflon, the sophistication of its manufacture rocketed in the face of demands from Nasa.

Three decades on, it is used in "space blankets" for exhausted marathon runners and emergency beacons for mountaineers, skiers and sailors. Without space travel, mylar would exist - but it would be known only in a few specialist commercial fields.

Your home today probably contains many items which are the results of space spinoffs, most of them in the kitchen. Freeze-dried foods got their packaging from the space programme: every time you have struggled to open an aluminised packet of crisps or coffee, you have been enjoying the benefits that people like Neil Armstrong did all those years ago. Freeze-dried "space food", which is reconstituted with water, is still used by troops, mountaineers and even round-the-world yachtsmen.

Another spin-off - involving the super-sensitive camera elements required for the Hubble space telescope - led to medical scientists fitting the devices to biopsy needles for breast cancer diagnosis. Nasa estimates the saving at $1bn annually in US healthcare costs.

The Environment

ONE OF the most dramatic insights that came out of the Apollo space programme was seeing our world from another celestial body. The image of the Earth as a vulnerable and beautiful planet, alone in the vast, black backdrop of space, made us acutely aware of just how much we rely on our life-support system.

Soon after those first pictures were released, two of the most important environmental organisations were launched, Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, and so began the green movement.

"The image of a tiny, isolated spark of life brought home how precious and vulnerable the Earth was," said Lord Melchett, executive director of Greenpeace and a young nuclear-disarmament campaigner at the time of the Moon landings.

"Nothing about it conjured up national boundaries. It showed a single entity, a little planet floating in space with delicately interconnecting oceans and atmosphere, dependent on each other and dependent on what we do."

Carl Sagan, the American astronomer and science populariser, said the "pale blue dot" of Earth showed humans are merely part of "a thin film of life on an obscure and solitary lump of rock and metal".

Jonathan Miller, the scientist and polymath, said: "Once you see the entire circumference of the Earth, you are aware of seeing something you have been forbidden to see. It is like seeing all of your body at once. It is not something that is allowed. I think this accounts for many of the strange experiences reported by the astronauts."

the human Body

SPACE IS the perfect laboratory for studying the effects of very low gravity and long periods of isolation on the human body and mind.

Bones and muscles degenerate under microgravity, mimicking the way they are affected disorders associated with ageing, such as osteoporosis or brittle-bone disease.

Astronauts who spend extended periods in space suffer serious bone weakening, resulting from the loss of calcium from the skeleton, similar to the effects of osteoporosis.

Space scientists have devised rigorous exercise regimes for astronaunts to keep their bones and muscles from wasting away, which has also become one of the key ways of alleviating the symptoms in ageing people.

Microgravity has also enabled doctors to study the flow of blood and fluids in the body, showing that gravity plays an important role in keeping the circulatory system working.

Understanding the way the inner ear controls balance in space and how problems can help to induce nausea has also been furthered by studying the way astronaunts retain their posture while floating in microgravity. This has helped to explain some of the problems associated with disorders leading to a loss of balance, according to David Hall, assistant director of space sciences at the British National Space Centre.

Studying the psychology of space travel has also led to a deeper understanding of problems associated with sleep deprivation, social isolation and the internal body clock.

The Global Village

THE EXPLOSION in the number of satellites orbiting the Earth has been an obvious outcome of the space race: many countries now know how to launch a rocket reliably. As a result, you can find out exactly where you are on the Earth's surface within a few metres at any time, by using the Global Positioning System (GPS).

And phone calls are feasible from almost anywhere on the planet's surface now via the Iridium and Teledesic "global phone" systems, which use a network of 100 satellites to form a wireless link between points on the planet.

But this advance has its price. Yesterday the leaders of the International Astronomical Union (IAU) said we may cut ourselves off from valuable knowledge about the rest of the universe by enveloping the Earth in "a fog of light and radio emissions".

Activities in space and on the ground are threatening astronomy, they said. Dr Johannes Andersen, the IAU's general secretary, said: "Outer space, once a pristine environment, is rapidly becoming overexploited and polluted."

There are also fears that physical junk could pose a threat to our future space efforts. The International Space Station is not yet built but is already at risk from shards of broken satellites whirling around the planet. The Apollo crews of the future might have to negotiate a dodgem of deadly metal that could punch holes in space craft. We have benefited from the space race - but has space?

The movies

A WEEK before Apollo 11 took off, the three astronauts and ground controllers watched a newly-released film: Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. They said they were inspired and excited by the realism with which space was depicted (the absence of noise and gravity, and the feeling of distance). The film, written with Arthur C Clarke, is a touchstone for its faithfulness to actual life in space.

After the Moon mission some of the Nasa team even felt the real surface was an anti-climax after the film. But in popular culture, the Moon landings changed what was believable in space films. For example, aliens could never again come from the Moon, nor the solar system; and they would need unimaginably advanced means of travel to reach us. ET and Close Encounters of the Third Kind reflect this belief in distant, superpowerful aliens.

The burgeoning environmental movement found a reflection in Silent Running, released in 1971 and directed by Douglas Trumbull. This depicted a space "ark" in which Bruce Dern tended the last surviving plants from a desolate Earth, a storyline that remains relevant.

The biggest change was that filmmakers either stuck to realism - as in 1983's The Right Stuff, about the early astronauts, and 1995's Apollo 13 - or else let go completely.

Examples of the latter are the hugely successful Star Trek and Star Wars series, running since 1977. When it comes to space travel, the films still prefer to do it in style.