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BBC TwoNewsnight
Last Updated: Thursday, 4 October 2007, 10:38 GMT 11:38 UK
Beam us all up Scotty...
Susan Watts
By Susan Watts
Science Editor, BBC Newsnight

Sputnik 1
Sputnik sparked a space race which inspired a generation

If it's not one decision it's another. Not only has Gordon Brown got to make up his mind about going to the country, but now he's being urged to put a Briton on the Moon.

It might be a good moment.

OK, so it's not an anniversary everybody has in their diary, but 4 October 2007 marks 50 years since the Soviet Union launched Sputnik - the first man-made object to orbit the Earth.

The United States, Russia, India and China have all announced new missions to the Moon - and beyond. So can Britain afford to stay out of this second space race - to keep our industry sharp, our national pride intact - and most important of all, to keep our children inspired about space and about science?

Sputnik, with its famous "beep beep beep" radio signal, mattered because its successful launch was the start of everything Space - the space race with its Cold War roots, and the space age that has defined my generation.

Should Britain join the new space race? Let us know on the Newsnight blog.
In 1957, the prevailing logic was that if the Soviets could launch Sputnik, they could probably launch nuclear missiles capable of reaching the United Sates.

President Eisenhower's answer was to meet a potential military threat with a civilian move - he set up Nasa. With President Kennedy's famous vision of a Lunar programme in 1961, the space race was truly on.

Meeting Moonwalkers

For me, and most of those I've met while making a film for Newsnight on Sputnik, the Apollo landings are one of my clearest childhood memories. Apollo, trips to the Science Museum and the BBC's Horizon programme led me into Science, and to (kind of) sticking with it.

Buzz Aldrin walks on the moon
Buzz Aldrin has been helping launch a new Nasa film
You can imagine my excitement when I had the chance to interview two astronauts for the film: Alexei Leonov - the first man to walk in space; and Nick Patrick a Yorkshire-born astronaut on the Nasa payroll, who went up on the shuttle Discovery just last year.

And with the prospect of including several of the Moonwalkers too, this film has proved one my more fun projects.

Alan Bean, Ed Mitchell, Charlie Duke and Buzz Aldrin were all at the New York premiere of "In the Shadow of the Moon" a feature film which opens here next month - showcasing original (colour) Nasa archive.

In fact, I'd met another Moonwalker - John Young - back in the late 1990s, for a Newsnight film that asked whether robots or people would make a better job of finding life (if it's still out there) on Mars.

That was when the Newsnight team found the secret Nasa group still working on Mars mission plans - including a pit stop on the Moon - though this was far from the official space agency line at the time.

New space race

It's hard to believe that there's now a new Space Race underway, and once again national pride plays no small part.

America's plan to return to the Moon and go, eventually, to Mars has been met by rival schemes to reach the Moon from Russia, India and, most worrying for American national pride perhaps, China.

It's hard to see the harm in the UK doubling the 200 million a year we currently spend on space.
You could hear it in the Moonwalkers' voices - they want the world to remember Apollo, and that it was America that got there first.

But there are other reasons to keep space in the public consciousness. I've been hugely lucky to have the chance to meet people at the heart of space exploration - and that keeps me excited.

But how do we enthuse our children about space and science in general?

I may be straying from the BBC's editorial guidelines here, but it's hard to see the harm in the UK doubling the 200m a year we currently spend on space.

This is what the government's own expert advisors want. And a reciprocal arrangement with Nasa that meant trained-up British astronauts heading for the Moon and Mars in return for some help with the instrumentation - doesn't strike me as too bad a deal.


Alexei Leonov - the first man to walk in space
Alexey Leonov was the first man to walk in space
Not only would this help to inspire our home-grown space industries, but a reason for our children to take an interest in the latest Space Race.

They're not all going to be astronauts - but some will be inspired enough to take science beyond their teenage years, and become scientists and engineers.

Others, at the very least, might retain an interest in science and space.

On Monday, Nasa invited the world to send in designs for space suits for its next generation of Moonwalkers. Step aside Stella McCartney - I've got a few ideas.

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