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No 112: The moon landings


'There's a fundamental truth to our nature… Man must explore'. So said David Scott, the commander of Apollo 15 as he took his first steps on the surface of the moon. Sixteen months later though, manned lunar missions were curtailed and NASA was left exploring only cutbacks, the victim of reduced funding and dwindling public interest.

With the USA bogged down in Cold War and bruised by the fall out of Cuba and Vietnam, the conquest of the moon wasn't a purely altruistic challenge. Beating the Russians and restoring national pride meant employing 250,000 people and splashing out $25 billion (approx $150 billion at modern rates).

But the men who flew Apollo did so in the name of adventure and a belief in something greater than themselves. They came in peace for all mankind, men of unbelievable bravery and total dedication for whom going to the moon meant leaving everything else behind.

It's exactly 40 years since Neil Armstrong performed the world's most famous emergency stop, shuffled down a ladder, and left his imprint on history. The first man to step onto another world, fulfilling an ambition as old as humankind. Following his colleague onto the surface, Buzz Aldrin spoke for us all when he exclaimed 'Beautiful view! Magnificent desolation!'

The Apollo programme accelerated our understanding of science and technology. But perhaps its greatest legacy was the famous 'Earthrise' shot taken by Apollo 8 as it circumnavigated the moon. For the first time, mankind saw its home in its entirety - a small blue and white marble hanging alone against the enormous blackness of space. It looked serene, idyllic, and utterly fragile.

Arguably, that one photograph kick started modern environmentalism, sparking a collective realisation that the Earth was precious and vulnerable. In setting out to explore the Moon, we ended up discovering the Earth.

As Apollo 8 made those first orbits, the crew broadcast a message to the people back home. They closed by reading the first 10 verses of Genesis, sending Christmas greetings to 'all of you on the good earth'.

Indeed the book of Genesis has a particular resonance with the Apollo programme. Returning from the second lunar landing, LM pilot Al Bean experienced his own personal anagnorisis. 'Boy, we're lucky to be here. Why do people complain about the earth? We are living in the Garden of Eden'.

And now, 40 years on from that small step, humankind is preparing to make its long-awaited return. India, China and Japan have all targeted missions, while the US continues to flex its super-power muscles with proposals to construct a permanent settlement from 2020.

And this time there's an added incentive to make the 500,000 mile return trip - energy. Scientists believe the moon could provide an almost inexhaustible supply of Helium 3, a rare isotope that could fuel the next generation of nuclear fusion. Extracted from the lunar surface, it could be the magic bullet solution to escalating energy problems. According to Ouyang Ziyuan of the Chinese Academy of Sciences 'Each year three space shuttle missions could bring enough fuel for all human beings across the world'.

And where there's fuel, there's money. Jerry Kulcinski of the University of Wisconsin-Madison ominously predicts the moon could become the Persian Gulf of the 21st century. 'If we had gold bricks stacked up on the surface of the moon, we couldn't afford to bring them back. This material - at several billion dollars a ton - is what makes it all worthwhile'.

As ever, it's a matter of cost, and not just financial. Humanity has long abused the stewardship of creation. What God made and saw as good, human greed has corrupted and crushed. Having squeezed the life from the earth, can we afford to do the same with its celestial companion? It seems there is another fundamental truth to our nature - humans must exploit.

Paul Powell