I wasn’t quite born when Neil Armstrong took his first step on the moon, 50 years ago in July just gone, by the time I was an impressionable young lad the Apollo moon landings had ended, but the excitement was still palpable. All the kids I knew had model rockets, space themed coloring books, astronauts were still being paraded on TV, treated like the heroes they were. The future looked amazing. Humans had just gone to the moon. In just under seven years this had gone from pipe dream to reality, humans were amazing. What were they going to do next? Probably Mars in a few years, Venus almost certainly by the end of the century, according to the more optimistic of pundits at least. We will all be wearing silver suits and gadding about in hover cars by this time next year.
What actually happened? Well the accountants moved in. They Put a stop to guys with short haircuts driving a buggy between the craters, or swinging at golf balls trying to loft them into lunar orbit, and started the Space Shuttle programme. It was deemed a bit more useful, a bit more commercial, but as far as I was concerned, a whole lot less cool. It looked like a regular plane, didn’t go to the moon, or anywhere more exotic, and just deposited bits of obscure looking junk in near Earth orbit. It was an awful disappointment for a growing lad to realise that the governing factor on what humans could achieve was not what we could imagine doing, but whether it made sense on the bottom line of a balance sheet to do it.
The Apollo project was many things of course. A PR exercise in getting one over the USSR by winning the race to the moon was the main one, but it started with JFK’s memorable speech “We choose to go to the moon. We choose to do these things not because they are easy, but because they are hard”. He wasn’t kidding it was hard.It also was hideously expensive of course but the spirit of ‘let’s see what we can do, and hang the expense’ is at the heart of the human condition. To utilise our collective relentless curiosity for the sake of seeing what we can do has driven our species since we became a species. One lunar scientist said ‘If you get 400,000 of the smartest people on Earth and give them an unlimited budget, it is amazing what you can do’. In the process these smart people imagined, and realised technologies that continue to shape our world today. From the blankets handed out to marathon runners, innovation in food hygiene, technology that now protects buildings from earthquakes, teflon, computerised flight, which made it into airliners, and even the antilock brakes in your car. Miniaturising of computers and the accelerated development of the microchip, remote mapping, medical advances and a whole host more.
In 1998 the human race began to build the largest machine in history, the large hadron collider. It was going to cost nearly 5 billion dollars, take the better part of two decades, and employ 10,000 of the world’s brightest sparks, all to try to find a theorised, but extremely elusive particle that exists for a minute fraction of a second at the beginning of the universe. Why did we do this? Just out of curiosity really. There was never intended to be a commercial end product, but in the process the CERN scientists invented the World Wide Web as a way of communicating with each other, I wonder whatever became of that?
The point here is obvious, human beings are relentlessly curious animals, always have been and always will be. It is where we are at our best. Climbing Everest, sailing over the horizon, hacking through jungles, fiddling with chemicals or electricity, touching something with a ‘wet paint’ sign on, just to check it for ourselves. Often there is no immediately obvious benefit but we do it anyway. Without curiosity, we would still be living up trees. These days the bean counter’s voices seem louder than the innovators and dreamers sometimes, and we may be missing out on opportunities we will never know about.
In December 1972 Harrison Schmitt walked up the ladder back into the lunar module and headed home, becoming the last person to walk on the moon so far. On the return he picked up his Hasselblad and shot a photo of the Earth through the spacecraft window. Known as the ‘blue marble’ picture it has been reproduced more times than any other photograph in history. It was the first time the human race could look back at itself on this beautiful sphere hanging in an awful lot of nothing, it is often cited as the moment the global environmental movement started. We went to the moon, and ended up discovering the Earth. Figuratively and literally we need to shoot for the moon a little more often than we do, you never know where we might land.
Phill McCoffers – The Islander Economics Correspondent