Colin Pillinger: We mustn't be left behind in a race to Mars

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When Neil Armstrong shimmied down the ladder and took his net and grabbed the material straight away in case they had to abort the mission, I had my fist in the air, shouting "They got it!" I was lying on the floor watching the television, and had spent the previous year making preparations for analysing the material Apollo 11 was going to bring back. Even now I can't look at the moon without thinking, "I've touched a bit of that."

What is the point of missions into space? Well, one of the big questions for scientists was whether the craters on the moon were caused by volcanic action or by meteor impacts. We were able to show it was the former, and we managed to date all the rocks that were thrown out, which told us when the moon was formed.

It was believing in space exploration that helped me to get the job, my first as a post-doctorate researcher. The chemistry skills that would prove useful in analysing lunar materials could have taken me into the oil industry, for example, but the original researcher thought there was no future in analysing moon rock. I believe we have only just begun.

We are returning to the technology of 40 years ago for a return to the Moon. After Apollo was cancelled Nasa decided on a reusable space shuttle, which, in hindsight, was a white elephant. Now it is going back to large rockets. Nasa has commissioned me and my industrial colleagues to look at how Beagle technology could be used to build a base on the moon. Beagle technology could help find water, which is essential not just for life, but also for rocket fuel. There is good evidence that there is water at the south pole of the moon, possibly from a meteor. The south pole never sees sunlight, so the water wouldn't vaporise.

The spin-offs from space research are among the many reasons we should keep investigating in space, and they can be life-saving. I'm working with the Wellcome Trust on combining two pieces of Beagle technology that will give a diagnosis of TB in a day, rather than the weeks it takes now.

The first space race was about military purposes. The second will be about economics. Already China, India and Japan are intent on lunar missions because they want to inspire young people to take up science and engineering. In India around 30 per cent of students want to be scientists or engineers. Here it is only 3 per cent. And we cannot, as a country, afford not to have engineers.

Nasa will have to respond, so I think there will be a base on the Moon. But don't hold your breath for Mars. After Apollo we thought it would be 15 years before samples were returned from Mars. It's still 15 years away. The European Space Agency was going to follow up Beagle, but it's been put back to 2018. With those time scales it will be 40 or 50 years before there's a manned mission.

Yet if the West doesn't get on with Mars, the far east countries will do it because they are willing to make the investment. Every step of the Apollo project was an accelerated risk. It was very methodical, but they only practised once. Today we are very risk averse. We should have gone again straight away with Beagle. We discovered why it didn't work, but people don't like failure. Richard Branson says that 90 per cent of his ideas fail. But you have to learn by your mistakes and you can only succeed by not being afraid to make them.

It's all about the will to try. Don't get involved in the politics, or multi-national missions. If you want it smaller, faster, cheaper, then choose a small team – with one chap in charge – and get on with it.

Colin Pillinger is professor of planetary sciences at the Open University, founder of the Planetary and Space Sciences Research Institute, and was the lead scientist on Beagle II, the British probe which flew to Mars in 2003. He talked to Andrew Johnson

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