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Column: Have we lost the ambition that put a man on the moon?

These are financially difficult times – but that doesn’t mean we should abandon the big projects that advance human knowledge, writes Aaron McKenna.

Aaron McKenna

HUMANKIND LOST a universally respected hero last week when Neil Armstrong died. He was the living embodiment of and a link to one of the great achievements in our history, one of the first and most notable of the people to venture into the new ocean of space.

Someone remarked to me when considering writing about Armstrong that he might be last week’s news. I respectfully disagreed: Neil Armstrong is a man whose name, as well as the accomplishments he represents, will live long in the memory alongside the famous explorers, scientists and engineers of history. Very few of us can fill in the socio-political background to the life and times of Galileo, Columbus, Magellan or Newton; but we know their names and their achievements. So it will be for Armstrong in a hundred years.

We like to relate great tales in human terms, and though Armstrong was only one of many involved in the space program in the 1960s and 70s, and the first of 12 men to walk on the moon, he is the embodiment and the face of the great achievement.

The enormity of that achievement seems pedestrian by today’s standards. It’s the curse of great feats that they become commonplace: Charles Lindbergh was a hero of his time for crossing the Atlantic, while today we can take short breaks from Europe to North America without trouble. Today we have a permanent manned presence on the International Space Station and most people can hardly name one astronaut where, before, they were household heroes.

But the space program in the 1960s was a feat of epic proportions, inventing technologies and solving problems heretofore never considered in a short period of time. Even aside from the engineering, it was a massive undertaking in management – with a contemporary joke being that when the stack of paperwork reached orbital altitude, your rocket was ready to launch. (The first draft of an Apollo flight plan weighed about 12 tons when printed and distributed to all the relevant people involved).

Budgets under fire

The entire endeavour of landing on the moon, in today’s money, is estimated to have cost around $200 billion. Putting the Curiosity Rover onto Mars has cost 1 per cent of that (it costs a lot of money to keep real live people breathing and safe in space). But despite the arguably better bang we get for our bucks today, space exploration has seen its budget squeezed. And around the world we’ve seen the budgets for cutting edge science come under fire in the teeth of a financial crisis. The setting and achieving of audacious goals in science and exploration just doesn’t seem to take the same precedence these days.

Our own country won’t stump up the petty amount of cash required to become even a part member of CERN, the body exploring the origins of our universe and some of the most cutting edge physics research. This locks Irish scientists out of the programme and sees Ireland become the only western European country not to be participating in this fundamental and exciting research.

There is an old debate, at home and abroad, about the usefulness of investment into space, experimental research and other science when there are so many problems at home and here on earth. When Apollo 11 lifted off on its mission there was a sizeable protest among onlookers, pointing to the crushing social and economic problems for many in the United States at that time when the program was eating up 4.4 per cent of the entire US federal budget.

There is a facetious counter argument that for the price of a couple of bank bailouts we could have our very own magnificent space program. The point being that humankind spends plenty of money on dumb things, so why not spend it on really smart and interesting ones?

Scientific dividends

A more relevant argument is that the dividends from investing into science and exploration are rarely immediately apparent, but often become highly consequential in the long run. Who really knows how our understanding of the beginning of the universe will pan out. Will it aid us to solve world hunger, cure cancer, fly faster or just invent a longer-lasting lightbulb?

For all the cost of Apollo, how much was it worth to see pictures of the whole earth for the first time; and to hear the thoughts and experiences of the men who were there afterwards?

It feels today as if humankind lacks direction in science and exploration. We are doing a generally very unhuman thing in that we look at the mountain that is space and we’re not all that interested in climbing it for the simple reason that it’s there. We could do worse than decide to go to Mars for a look ourselves before the next decade is halfway finished, even if only to remind ourselves that there is more than just banks and markets and politicians in the universe.

We are genuinely interested, in seems, in the accomplishments of our scientists and explorers. Perhaps it would be an idea to set ourselves an audacious goal and find the next Neil Armstrong in the first person to walk on Mars or similar.

I would love it if, in my lifetime, we could all look up as a single human race and say “Wow” the way that we did in July 1969. And I’ll miss Neil Armstrong, because the world feels a little smaller without the first man to set foot on another heavenly body being among us.

Aaron McKenna is a businessman and a columnist for TheJournal.ie. You can find out more about him at aaronmckenna.com or follow him on Twitter @aaronmckenna.

Read: More columns from Aaron McKenna on TheJournal.ie>

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