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Friday, October 2, 1998 Published at 18:30 GMT 19:30 UK


Does Nasa still have the right stuff?

This week the American space agency Nasa celebrated its 40th birthday. Our science editor David Whitehouse asks if it still has the right stuff?

Nasa's achievements over those 40 years have been remarkable. Chief among them are, of course, the landings on the Moon between 1969 and 1972.

When I look at the Moon I am still astonished that we went there. Even now I think few people really appreciate the significance of our first footsteps on another world.

Astonished that we went there and dismayed that we abandoned it.

What has Nasa done since then? There have been many space probes to the planets; giant orbiting observatories and hints of life in space.

But ever since the days of the Apollo moonlandings Nasa's program has been dominated by two projects: the Space Shuttle and the Space Station.

And they have both been going on too long. It is 26 years since we left the Moon and only now are the components of a space station going into orbit.

Less impressive

The Space Shuttle is a remarkable spacecraft but it first flew in 1981 and will continue to fly for at least the next decade.

It is difficult and expensive to run. It is about time that we had a cheaper, totally reusable spacecraft.

So Nasa's achievements during the first 15 years of its life were stunning. The report card since then is less impressive.

I wonder if those who established Nasa would have been happy to have done so much so soon and then take decades to do anything else.

When I watched Neil Armstrong on the Moon I thought we would soon live there, soon have a space station and, in the longer term, travel to Mars.

Three decades later we have done few of these things. Most of the time there are only two people in space.

No vision

Nobody has ventured more than a few hundred miles from Earth in 26 years!

If you ask a schoolchild what Nasa is doing I bet that you will get a vague reply. And that's the problem, there is no clear goal, no vision. What is that saying about what happens when there is no vision?

So what visions could there be?

It needs only a few words. Put people on the Moon and Mars.

And do not tell me that we could not afford it because such grand and inspiring projects turn in a profit if you look at them the right way.

This is because money is not spent in space but on the ground. There is also the inspiration factor.

Someone once calculated that if you included the young people who became scientists and engineers as a result of the moonlandings the Apollo project turned in a profit.

So can we hear it for the Apollo moonlandings, Nasa's greatest triumph, mankinds greatest adventure and one of the biggest business pay-offs in history.

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