Nasa, the US space agency, has a love-hate relationship with anniversaries such as its 50th birthday last year and now the celebrations to mark 40 years since the first Moon landing on July 20 1969.
They bring back glorious memories of the Apollo programme – the most eye-catching achievement in the history of science – but contrast with the relatively pedestrian activities that Nasa and other space agencies are carrying out today.
While the risky Shuttle mission to repair the Hubble telescope in orbit caused some excitement this year, the near-term prospect for manned spaceflight consists of little more than routine visits to the International Space Station. Sadly, the only thrills would come from a disastrous accident.
It was all so different in the 1960s. Early in the decade there was the stimulus of the “space race” between two superpowers, triggered by US shock at the Soviet Union’s 1957 launch of Sputnik, the first artificial satellite. As Lord Rees, cosmologist and president of Britain’s Royal Society, puts it: “The Apollo programme was a transient spin-off from the superpower rivalry of the cold war era.”
But the political and ideological origins of the race did not diminish its excitement. It is easy to forget now that in the early stages many experts expected the Soviets to win the race. In the autumn of 1959 they had been the first to reach the Moon (with the Luna 2 probe) and the first to photo graph its far side (Luna 3). Nasa’s first six unmanned Ranger missions to the Moon failed; Ranger 7 succeeded in July 1964.
Then the balance of space power changed, as the vast scientific and technological resources poured into the Apollo programme paid off. As Nasa got its act together in the late 1960s, Soviet attempts to develop a huge Moon rocket similar to the US Saturn launcher ended in failure.
By 1969 it was clear the US was racing against only itself. But the prospect that men really would land on the Moon – unthinkable beyond the bounds of science fiction in the 1950s – brought an extraordinary feeling of exhilaration to people round the world. As Lord Rees says: “Neil Armstrong’s ‘one small step’ gave us an image that is imprinted on the memories of all of us who are now middle-aged.”
Many space enthusiasts imagined that 40 years later we would have permanent lunar bases and manned missions to Mars. But after the six Apollo landings, the political will to fund such ambitious programmes dissipated. Since 1972 no astronaut or cosmonaut has flown beyond low terrestrial orbit, a few hundred kilometres above Earth.
Despite the lack of a sustained follow-through, it would be wrong to regard the Moon landings as a historical side-show. Apollo made a huge impact on science and technology, politics and education – and our view of the world.
The most direct impact, of course, was on the aerospace industry. Much of the technology used in today’s more limited space activities originated with Apollo and its Russian counterparts, says Simon Prince, an aeronautical engineer at City University, London. “They had to invent everything then and, in terms of materials and knowledge of the dynamics of flight, there has not been much forward movement.”
Then there are the famous technological spin-offs from Apollo to other fields of industry. Nasa lists 13 of these, including reflective insulation for buildings and water purification systems. Teflon and non-stick pans are not on the list.
Apollo also left a scientific legacy. While the Moon turned out to be grey and lifeless – to no one’s surprise – the 382kg of rocks brought back by the astronauts have helped planetary scientists to understand the history of the Moon and Earth. The samples showed both the volcanic nature of the ancient Moon and the way meteorites bombarded it after the surface had cooled.
More important was the impact on society. Barack Obama, the US president, told the National Academy of Sciences in April: “The enormous investment of that era – in science and technology, in education and research funding – produced a great outpouring of curiosity and creativity, the benefits of which have been incalculable.”
Apollo inspired many young people, particularly in the US, to study science and engineering. Indeed, some see the flowering of an entrepreneurial high-tech culture in Silicon Valley and elsewhere as a legacy of the Moon race.
However, Apollo’s widest impact of all was on the way we see our own planet. The “Earthrise” pictures – taken on Christmas eve 1968, from Apollo 8 in lunar orbit – were among the most influential photographs of the 20th century.
The astonishing contrasts between the barren lunar surface and the jewel-like blue-and-white globe shining over the horizon, almost 400,000km away, captured the beauty and vulnerability of Earth more vividly than any other image. The inspiration they gave to the burgeoning environmental movement of the 1970s was incalculable.
As Apollo 8 astronaut Bill Anders put it: “We came all this way to explore the Moon, and the most important thing is that we discovered the Earth.”