Fly me to the moon

When the Apollo 11 Lander touched down on the lunar surface it effectively marked the killer punch in the fevered battle of US /Soviet one-upmanship commonly known as the space race.


When, on July 20th 1969, the Apollo 11 Lander touched down on the lunar surface it effectively marked the killer punch in the fevered battle of US /Soviet one-upmanship commonly known as the space race.



Forty years on, and despite subsequent thawings in their frosty relationship, America and Russia find themselves on a familiar path.


Under its constellation programme NASA is talking about returning astronauts to the moon by 2020, while Moscow is poised to award the contract for a spacecraft that it hopes will put Russians on the lunar surface by 2018.


But they aren’t the only runners in the 21st century space race. Indeed, with China, India, Japan and Europe all keen to put men on the moon by 2020, our nearest celestial neighbour could soon be a hive of international activity.


The other key difference this time round is that the desire to put men in space and get to the moon again is motivated by factors more complex and detailed than the early days of space exploration.


Plucked from their day jobs as test pilots, America’s first astronauts had little idea about what they were letting themselves in for. That they were doing it for the greater glory of their country was all that mattered.


And while a space programme remains a potent political symbol – particularly for emerging superpowers like China and India – the current level of interest is driven by far more tangible scientific factors.


A treasure trove of information about the formation of our own planet and handy vantage point from which to learn more about our impact on the environment the moon has much to teach us.


It is also increasingly seen as a critical staging post in further manned exploration of our solar system and concepts that were once little more than the far-out imaginings of science-fiction writers – like lunar bases, or mining operations – are now being given serious consideration by the world’s top space scientists.


This all has tremendous significance for the tiny patch of our blue planet we call the UK.


As we frequently point out in The Engineer, the UK is home to a space sector that punches well above its weight. Our expertise in areas such as satellite technology, robotic probes and fundamental space science is truly world-leading.


And while we may not have our own space programme, a renewed and vigorous race to the moon and beyond can only be a good thing for our home-grown space scientists and engineers.



Jon Excell
Deputy Editor