Thursday, December 20, 2012

It Has Been 40 Years…

…and just a few days that there literally was a “Man in the Moon”. On December 14, 1972, at about 5:00 AM UTC Apollo 17 commander Eugene Cernan entered the missions Lunar Module immediately after his crew-mate and Lunar Module pilot Harrison Schmitt. A few hours later they lifted off from the lunar surface in the Lunar Module's ascent stage to successfully return to Earth on December 17.

Cernan knew of the significance of this event. He knew that Apollo 17 was the last Moon landing mission of the Apollo programme. He also knew that NASA's next project was the Space Shuttle and – as people then still expected – an entire low earth orbit infrastructure, and not further ventures deep into outer space. Like Neill Armstrong's famous first words, Cernan's farewell speech therefore deserves its place in history:

I'm on the surface; and, as I take man's last step from the surface, back home for some time to come - but we believe not too long into the future - I'd like to just [say] what I believe history will record. That America's challenge of today has forged man's destiny of tomorrow. And, as we leave the Moon at Taurus–Littrow, we leave as we came and, God willing, as we shall return, with peace and hope for all mankind. (Source: Eric M. Jones. Apollo 17 Lunar Surface Journal. NASA)

Today his words, “not too long into the future”, still linger in our ears while we wonder how long exactly “not too long” will be. I doubt that Cernan thought it likely that the next visit to the Moon might not happen during his lifetime. The Apollo programme had proven that manned spaceflight was indeed possible and high expectations had been raised. The world presented by Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick in their 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey was widely considered to be a realistic representation of life at the turn of the millennium.

But for the decision-makers in Washington NASA had fulfilled its purpose. America had beaten the Russians to the Moon and thereby had apparently proven the superiority of Western civilization. But few consciously realized how costly the Apollo programme had been. And with closer problems at hand, like the war in Vietnam and the Civil Rights question, Nixon and his administration were unwilling to continue spending that much money on space. Even the total cessation of the manned spaceflight programme was considered a serious option. Effectively this meant, that our expansion into space took a much slower road.

So now we are writing the year 2012. More than ten years have passed since 2001, and while we have had a continuous manned presence in space with the ISS for longer than that, it is a far cry from Clarke's and Kubrick's vision, which now seems optimistic even for the year 2101. Moreover, more than 40 years have passed since Cernan's last steps on the Moon. And it is very likely, that Apollo 17's 50th and even 60th anniversaries will pass without new developments in this realm; especially when we consider the current speed of progress of the American space programme – after and also before the cancellation of the Constellation Program.

But let us not forsake all hope. Maybe it just means that the next “Man in the Moon” will hail from China. Or maybe it means that America needs a “Shenzhou Shock”…