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Friday, July 31, 1998 Published at 10:12 GMT 11:12 UK


Sci/Tech

When will we go back?

The young will not remember this

Our Science Editor Dr David Whitehouse wonders when will our children get the feeling that he had when he saw the first steps by man on the Moon?

Alan Shepard, the first American in space, died last week. He was one of only 12 men who have walked on the Moon, an exclusive club which will not see its membership grow in the forseeable future.

Few who witnessed the Moon landings would have thought that decades later mankind would not have returned to the arid lunar plains.

As we mourn Alan Shepard's passing, I wonder what it will be like when there is no one left who can tell us directly what it was like to walk on the Moon.

The first landing is one of those events that everyone who witnessed it can remember where they were. I was a young schoolboy for whom the estimated time of the first footprint, 3am, was beyond bedtime.

After persistent pleading, however, I was allowed to watch live as the ghostly image of Neil Armstrong decended the ladder on the lunar module and placed his mark on the lunar surface.

I will never forget that feeling. One of the most important events in history, we had taken our first steps into the cosmos. As President Nixon said later, for a brief moment all humanity was one.

In a way that perhaps we have not been since.

But now I am of a certain age. The Apollo 11 landing happened 29 years ago so anyone younger than, say, 35, will not remember it and will have missed out on one of the great experiences of the century.

Those who missed it have cause to feel deprived.

If you are younger than 35 and especially if you are 14 what similar event can you look forward to? What will you be able to say to your children in the way I tell my own son about the night that Apollo landed.

I suppose that if we do find intelligent life in space or if an alien spacecraft arrives that would count as such an event - where were you when the flying saucers came daddy?

But finding life in space is uncertain. A more predictable event would be a return to the Moon or a manned landing on Mars.

None of which are on the cards.

Another great adventure would not be a pointless jaunt. It would be beneficial in many ways.

President Bush called the Apollo program "the best investment since Leonardo bought a sketch pad" and he wasn't talking about Leonardo DiCaprio.

The reason why we are not going back to the Moon or on to Mars at the moment is because it costs too much.

But it is also because politicians lack vision and a broader view of civilisation that stretches beyond their next election. Sure, it would be costly, but it would be worth it.

Not for me, I have lived through something like it. But for our children who have not.





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