On May 25 1961, President John F. Kennedy announced that by the end of the decade, Americans would land on the Moon. On July 20 1969, 50 years ago on Saturday, they did so and then safely returned. A government had pledged to do something at the time impossible, to step off our world and onto another, and pulled it off. But we have not been back since 1972. The Space Age, which in the 1960s dominated public imagining of the future, has long faded. US colonies on the Moon are still not due until 2028, funding permitting. We use orbiting satellites daily, but to power the inner-space technology of iPhones and social media, to find new shops and send pictures of ourselves.
Mankind ultimately went to the Moon 50 years ago “because it’s there”, as climber George Mallory said of Mount Everest. It’s the reason humanity always does these things. But the expense of the Apollo lunar program was huge, $400 billion in today’s dollars. Nor would it have happened so fast without the prod of Cold War rivalry. The rocketry that carried us to the Moon was a sideline of missiles to lob nuclear warheads between continents. But Apollo was a moral mission too, intended to show what democractic societies could achieve over totalitarian ones. One theme of The Australian Financial Review’s editorial the day after that first moon walk was that America had openly televised the whole mission live, risks and all — which no Soviet rival effort would dare have done.
It was the kind of industrial mobilisation America excels at. Two percent of the US workforce became involved, and for each hour of Apollo spacecraft flight, a million work hours were put in on the ground. The Financial Review enthused that the biggest impact had been in management: the “techniques for directing the massed endeavours of scores of thousands of minds in a close-knit, mutually interactive, combination of government, university, and private industry”. It could have been describing the internet revolution still to come. Then there were all the other spin-offs, in materials and medical science in particular.
But it wasn’t sustainable, financially or politically. The value of space adventuring was questioned in US public polling, then and today. American society was more bitterly divided in 1969 than even now, over the Vietnam war and a counter-cultural revolt that echoes today. And outer space always brought a lot of introspection on earth. Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey combined the renegade technology of HAL with a human trip beyond Infinity. And David Bowie’s Major Tom — Space Oddity was released the week before the landing — drifted off into space wondering what he was doing there.
In reality, the space industry has just slowly heading in other directions. US space funding has been inconsistent for decades, though China and India still run large national prestige projects. But the private sector, and many smaller but richer nations — Singapore, New Zealand, and indeed Australia — can do things more cheaply than big government. They are looking at mass satellite applications or satellite launch facilities, while billionaire egos like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos are developing tourist spacecraft and moon landers. And “moonshot” is still the term for the mega-scale technological leaps in artificial intelligence and quantum computing — the kind of things we will need for planetary travel and beyond in the future — that are in vogue once more. The Australian Financial Review Innovation Summit on July 29 and 30 will look at how such Big Technology can be used for the good.
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