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9 January 2019

The new race for space

As China lands an uncrewed craft on the far side of the moon, humanity continues to look to space for salvation. But 50 years after the moon landing, we still have not found the answers we were looking for. 

By Philip Ball

In his final book, Brief Answers to the Big Questions, Stephen Hawking says that humans must colonise space because “not to leave planet Earth would be like castaways on a desert island not trying to escape”. It is not such a bizarre claim once you realise it echoes the view of medieval theologians that we should despise this life in comparison to the glory of the next. It is the perfect encapsulation of human space exploration as sublimated religion.

Hawking thought we should find another home before we destroy the one we have. (It is not clear why he thinks we’d treat the next one any better.) The moon landing of Apollo 11 half a century ago was, he says, the first step – but we failed to follow through.

It’s often lamented by space flight advocates such as Hawking that no person has returned to the moon since the Apollo 17 mission of 1972. They don’t show much curiosity about why that is, beyond blaming a general disenchantment with science and technology. Right now, the nation that sent Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to the lunar surface has no means of sending people even to the International Space Station (ISS) in earth orbit, but must rely on the likes of the Russian Soyuz rockets (one of which malfunctioned after launch last October, necessitating an emergency landing).

Meanwhile, China has now established its lunar capability with the successful landing of the uncrewed Chang’e 4 spacecraft on the moon’s far side on 3 January, followed by the disembarking of the lunar rover Yutu 2. The project’s chief designer, Wu Weiren, commented that this was “a small step for the rover, but one giant leap for the Chinese nation”, which could be read either as a homage to Armstrong’s famous words or a declaration that supremacy in space has now passed from West to East.

Some would say the US space programme declined because the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) failed to articulate any vision of what would happen after it “won” the Cold War space race in 1969. In this view, the Apollo missions were a victim of their own success. There is some truth in that. But there’s another reason why the US space programme was bound, once it succeeded, to come to an end. Precisely by showing us the realities of crewed space flight, and what space itself looks like beyond our atmosphere, the Apollo missions destroyed a fantasy. When Buzz Aldrin spoke of the “magnificent desolation” of the moon, all we could see from the fuzzy monochrome images on television was the desolation.

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After 1969 there was no getting away from the stark fact that, beyond the atmosphere, space will passively yet relentlessly try to kill us. It is bleak, lonely and inhospitable beyond anything sailors could have imagined when they set forth into uncharted seas. We haven’t returned to space because we now know that there is nothing for us there but beautiful, empty horror.

Despite today’s noble “Columbus” rhetoric about human exploration of space, the narrative of the early American space programme was explicitly militaristic and nationalistic: the goal was to beat the Reds. The Eisenhower administration launched Nasa on 1 October 1958, a year after the launch of the Soviets’ satellite Sputnik I and their first test of an intercontinental ballistic missile. President John Kennedy announced the moon mission just six weeks after Yuri Gagarin became the first person in space on 12 April 1961. The goal, Kennedy said was “landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth”. (In the West, women could assume at the outset that they were not part of the plan.)


Despite appearances, the US space programme has never enjoyed general public support. From the mid-1960s to the 1970s, only two out of ten Americans favoured further expenditure on space flight. When the Apollo programme began, roughly three out of ten thought the government should be spending less. The only significant change in these attitudes came with the approach to the moon landings, when Apollo 8 made the first crewed moon orbit at the end of 1968. Yet despite the huge and almost unanimously enthusiastic media coverage as the Eagle module touched down on 20 July 1969 (Armstrong and Aldrin stepped outside the next day), this enthusiasm waned rapidly. Although around 120 million viewers in the US watched the landings, by 1970 polls showed that perhaps as few as one in 15 remembered Armstrong’s name. “I had hoped,” he said that year, “that the impact would be more far-reaching than it has been.”

He shouldn’t have been surprised. The missions were framed from the outset as a “space race” against the Soviets, so the race was run once Armstrong made his footprint on the dusty lunar surface. America had triumphed; Aldrin had planted and saluted the stars and stripes on national television. “In this sense,” wrote Herbert Krugman, who helped conduct opinion polls about space in the 1970s, “public support for the Apollo programme had been designed to self-destruct on the initial achievement of the programme’s major objective.”

But something else shifted too as the public finally watched real space travel on their screens. It was not quite what they had imagined.

Shaped by popular culture, space flight had looked so easy – at least for Hollywood aliens bent on threatening our planet, as in  The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) and George Pal’s Cold War-inflected version of HG Wells’s classic The War of the Worlds (1953). With Destination Moon (1950) Pal had attempted a more realistic depiction of a moon mission, and frankly it didn’t compare, looking as stilted and dull as a Nasa board meeting. Pal’s Conquest of Space (1955), a Technicolor story of a flight to Mars from a wheel-like space station, flopped so badly that movie makers were frightened off showing space travel “realistically” for over a decade – until Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey changed the game in 1968. Audiences opted instead for fantastical space opera in the old style of Flash Gordon, as in the hugely popular TV series Space Patrol (1950-55) and Lost in Space (1965-68).

Nasa happily colluded in building this illusion, for example by recycling in its press material a 1966 article in the New York Times depicting a moon base like some industrial plant transported wholesale from New Jersey. Even in the 1970s Nasa was employing artists’ renditions of space stations as wooded suburban settlements housed in glass and steel: a promise that space would be just like home. The space administration allowed manufacturers to promote their role in the Apollo missions. The missions themselves were carefully stage-managed for television. This was exploration as entertainment, all part of the brand construction.

Even scientists had rose-tinted visions about what was out there. Sure, they knew the moon was a rocky wasteland, but in 1940 the British Astronomer Royal Harold Spencer Jones wrote confidently about vegetation on Mars (as for higher life forms, he added, “we cannot say”). Space, then, was just the next (final?) frontier for exploration by the indomitable American spirit. Weren’t the Apollo astronauts like Lewis and Clark pressing on westwards? Space was more of the same, except a bit further away.

Then we saw the truth. Outer space reveals why Earth is so special. Obviously there is the extreme cold – unless you’re thinking of Venus, say, where the surface swelters at 460˚C under clouds of sulphuric acid. There’s the vacuum: the moon has no atmosphere to speak of. There’s the absence of gravity, which causes bone loss – use it or lose it, our bodies say, and experience on space stations shows that astronauts can lose 1-2 percent of their bone mass per month. And there is the carcinogenic radiation from cosmic rays and particles streaming from the sun, from which we are shielded on Earth by the planet’s magnetic field. As for planet-type environments, it’s far from clear that long-term sustainable habitats could be constructed from the available resources on the moon or Mars without constant provision from Earth.

It’s a fool’s game to try to predict what technologies of the far future might make possible, but any human presence on these two worlds – the only realistic destinations at present – would be grim and perilous. Hawking’s argument depends on the same old blindness to physical reality: we have yet to find an environment in which we would have the slightest prospect of creating an alternative long-term home, and there is none in our solar system.

Seeing the moon, that place of myth and fantasy, so naked and barren was sobering. As the poet Richard Brautigan wrote of the moon landing, “Men are walking on the moon today/planting their footsteps as if they were/zucchini on a dead world.”

Alongside a dawning appreciation of the true harshness of space, there was growing unease about the ethos behind the space programme. Opposition from the late 1960s counterculture to the military-industrial complex that supported space flight reflected a fundamental conflict of values: a rejection of a rational, technocratic society. Intellectuals too were repelled by the spiritual vacuum at the heart of the endeavour. When Norman Mailer visited Nasa’s Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston to research his analysis of the Apollo programme in Of a Fire on the Moon (1970), he found it “severe, ascetic” and soulless. To these people, Mailer felt, the moon landing was a mere technical achievement, devoid of sacred significance. It was the triumph of the Wasp.


The launch of Apollo 16 in 1972, the last mission to put a man on the moon

The battle front was drawn up along the fault lines created by Vietnam, the Summer of Love, and sex and drugs and rock ’n’ roll. For traditionalists the astronauts were standard-bearers of morality in the face of hippy decadence. As the Evening Dispatch of Columbus, Ohio, put it, “all are men on the edge of middle age, men from the middle class. Nowhere among them… was there a whiff of pot, a mop of unkempt hair, a shouting doubter or a self-pitying whine.” They were square and proud of it, folks who got things done rather than sitting around moaning about the state of the planet.

The lack of any vision or motivation beyond winning the space race became painfully clear as popular interest peaked with the moon landings. Many commentaries asked: what does it mean? There was a sense it had to be important – history was being made – but no one could quite say why. Armstrong called it a “giant leap for mankind”, but how exactly? “It’s in the nature of the human being to face challenges,” he later said, adding in his characteristically clumsy syntax, “It’s by the nature of his deep inner soul.” Matters have barely progressed today, when Hawking is content to say the “obvious answer” to the question of why venture into space is “because it’s there”.

Newspaper editorials on the moon landings spoke vaguely of “reshaping man’s destiny” and how it was the start of a new era. To some it seemed like so much sound and fury; as historian Matthew Tribbe documents in his 2014 book No Requiem for the Space Age; even the eminent physicist Max Born called Apollo “a triumph of intellect, but a tragic failure of reason”. The Wall Street Journal asked, “Will it simply be the first of an indefinite number of pointless extraterrestrial visits, of little benefit to man while his earthy condition deteriorates?” We’re still asking.

It’s poignant to see enthusiasts of human space exploration try to paint a picture that appeals to the spirit without realising what a banal palette they have assembled. As Armstrong exemplifies, the kinds of people who make rockets and pilot them have not tended to be those who can speak eloquently and persuasively about their motivations. Kurt Vonnegut satirised the situation in his 1972 television film Between Time and Timbuktu, one sequence of which described a moon shot that carried a poet on board. The narrator, an ex-astronaut, says “Maybe he can give us some fancy description of things” – as long as he didn’t get too emotional and bring disaster on the mission.

This is the flip side of the glorious quest described by Tom Wolfe in The Right Stuff (1979): a narrative in which the pioneering astronauts personified a moribund vision of the all-American male hero: patriotic, brave, clean-living (with a patient, devoted wife keeping the home fire burning), wise-cracking and incapable of introspection. For commentators such as the political scientist Victor Ferkiss, that was precisely the problem. How could “these thoroughly conventional and middle-class and essentially dull people” be “the supermen whom the race had struggled for a million years to produce”?

This is something Andy Weir got right in The Martian, the 2014 best-seller behind the Matt Damon movie. The resourceful Mark Watney, who engineers his survival after a disastrous crewed landing on Mars, is a hero of mind-numbing shallowness. Weir’s folksy, quasi-adolescent banter among the technicians in mission control is believably realistic. By the time Watney is rescued you’re wondering what all this impressive hardware, this hazardous mission, was really for. The Martian reflects the reputation of the US space industry for having become its own justification: we send people into space because Apollo created an entire infrastructure to do just that.

There is no substantial argument – philosophical, scientific or cultural – for why the astronauts are out there at all. “Why bother?” Watney finally asks, only to trot out a formulaic, sterile and tautological mantra: “progress, science, and the interplanetary future we’ve dreamed of for centuries”. The comment confirms that what we’ve just witnessed is a group of tech-obsessed jocks managing a pickle they created themselves for reasons they can’t articulate.

That’s why The Martian is a nihilistically useful portrayal of human space flight: a dramatisation of the spiritual emptiness at its heart. The tragedy is, of course, that Weir evidently intended the complete opposite. And this too makes it a good metaphor for Nasa’s predicament.


The contrast between the early optimism of space exploration and the post-1969 disenchantment as reality bit resonates throughout popular culture. In 1962 the music charts carried the jaunty “Telstar”, written by Joe Meek for the Tornados in homage to the eponymous communications satellite launched that year. Ten years later there was Elton John’s “Rocket Man”, where space is now vast and forbidding: “It’s lonely out in space/On such a timeless flight… Mars ain’t the kind of place to raise your kids/In fact it’s cold as hell/And there’s no one there to raise them if you did/And all this science I don’t understand.”

As usual, David Bowie got there first. In “Space Oddity”, released five days before the launch of Apollo 11, Major Tom offered a dismal vision of men in space: “For here am I sitting in a tin can/Far above the world/Planet Earth is blue/And there’s nothing I can do.”

The stars do indeed “look very different today”: cold, distant and hostile. Yet with a patrician sense that pop lyrics were not worth heeding, the BBC elected to play “Space Oddity” during its coverage of the moon landings. “I’m sure they really weren’t listening to the lyrics at all,” Bowie later said. “It wasn’t a pleasant thing to juxtapose against a moon landing.” After the astronauts had set foot on the moon, the BBC finally realised and the song wasn’t broadcast again until the Apollo 11 crew were all safely back home. Some, however, welcomed the song as an antidote to the boosterism – “at a time”, the Observer critic Tony Palmer wrote, “when we cling pathetically to every moonman’s dribbling joke, when we admire unquestioningly the so-called achievement of our helmeted heroes without wondering why they are there at all”.

Bowie’s song, of course, took its inspiration from Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, released in 1968 to an audience primed for its psychedelic finale. Kubrick consulted with Nasa engineers and predicted that the space agency “will be delighted” with the result. While its message for space exploration was in fact notoriously cryptic, the film helped shape perceptions because of its realism. At a stroke it raised the bar for technical standards in movie science fiction.

The lonely fate of Major Tom is prefigured in the death of crew member Frank Poole, after the rogue computer HAL has taken control of one of the capsules and rammed him with it while he is outside the ship. Poole is shown slowly spinning out into complete blackness, sealed inside his space suit until he dwindles from view: an end of unutterable isolation. Equally telling is the sequence in which Keir Dullea’s David Bowman, now the sole surviving crew member, blows the airlock on his capsule to re-enter the spaceship. There is a crescendo of alarm beeps and flashing lights that ends with an exterior shot of the spacecraft, the explosion happening in total silence thanks to the soundproof vacuum of space.

It’s a typically Kubrickian coup de théâtre, but all the more effective for reminding us how unfamiliar space is. The booms and sparks as the USS Enterprise zaps Klingon vessels invited the notion that this was a kind of marine warfare: galleons dispatching broadsides as the captain gives orders from the bridge. But what Kubrick showed was that space is like nothing you knew or imagined; all the normal rules are suspended. It is deeply alien, and out to kill you – and no one can hear you scream.

That message was already filtering into the public consciousness by the time Apollo 8 was preparing for launch. George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) scandalised with its visceral imagery, but was much more culturally subversive than that. Now often seen as an allegory of Vietnam and American racism, it made radiation from a spacecraft returning from Venus the possible cause of the zombie apocalypse.

From the late 1960s on, movie science fiction depicted disorientation, decay, madness and death in the face of the overwhelming, pitiless desolation of space. In Douglas Trumbull’s Silent Running (1972), Bruce Dern turns homicidal to try to save the plants that his crewed spaceship the Valley Forge preserves after despoliation of the Earth. The stark message is one Hawking might have heeded: can there be much future for an off-planet refuge if we have not tended our garden here on earth?

Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris appeared the same year, an adaptation of the 1961 novel by Polish science fiction writer Stanisław Lem. Its portrait of the emotional crises of a space-station skeleton crew was all the more believable because of the director’s trademark slow pace: space flight, he shows us, is mostly extremely dull. Moon, the 2009 movie conceived and directed by Bowie’s son Duncan Jones, reprises this theme of isolation as Sam Rockwell unravels into hallucination and paranoia on a lunar mining facility, abetted by a HAL-like artificial-intelligence system called GERTY. The inclement environment and the stress of extreme separation from loved ones and community highlight questions about the feasibility of long-term human habitation off-world.

Space in the movies is no longer the rosy “Tomorrowland” portrayed in the 1950s by Walt Disney, with moon bases and giant spaceships reproducing cosy American suburbia. It is a wasteland of penal colonies and extinct planetary outposts, where humans cling desperately to survival, rendered brutal or numb by the unendurable harshness.

Space opera did not die. Far from it, and the Star Trek franchise is still alive and well. But we know now that it is all fantasy. George Lucas confessed that his intention with Star Wars (1977) was to provide a fairy tale for a generation that no longer had any. As a bookstore owner told the literary scholar Hugh Kenner, after Apollo “reality couldn’t keep up. When your image of interplanetary adventure becomes a man in a huge white diving suit stumbling over a boulder… crystalline cities on Venus lose their believability.”


For a brief moment in the late 1960s human space flight suspended our judgement with its sheer scale, the raw power of its technology. Who could fail to be awed by footage of rockets thrusting free of their moorings and heading to the stars? Watching Apollo 11 blast off, even the sceptical Mailer could only manage to gasp repeatedly, “Oh my God!”

But after the moon landings, our notions of space had to grow up. The rhetoric of saving humanity by venturing to the stars has lost its shine, and we should now be impatient with it. As Vonnegut said: “I think many people are encouraged to believe that we can use up this planet and dispose of it like a Kleenex because we are going to wonderful new planets which are green and moist and nourishing. . . Well, that isn’t the case. We’re really earthbound no matter how much we may expend on getting the hell away from Earth.”

The hard facts of the cosmos show this to be so, he said. “Look at any big picture book on the universe where the distances between the heavenly bodies are indicated, and the natures of the atmospheres of some of the other planets. One must conclude that exploration is not a particularly hopeful enterprise.”

CP Snow understood this too. In the midst of the Apollo moon shots, the novelist and physical chemist admitted that “the trouble is, the solar system is a desperately disappointing place. Scientists have known this for a long time; it is now being confirmed in concrete, only too concrete, fact. It is no use holding out the prospect of limitless horizons when the horizons are certain to turn out only too desolately limited.”

Snow is in truth a little unfair, for the solar system is filled with wonders. Our robotic spacecraft have landed on a comet, roved the hills of Mars, explored the methane lakes of Saturn’s moon Titan and the frozen-nitrogen mountains of Pluto. Many scientists at Nasa worry that crewed missions divert resources away from projects like these that teach us much more about the universe, and inspire awe in the process.

Today’s astronautics is often bathetic in comparison, as the crew of the ISS struggles to get the toilets working. Their activities may even have played a part in dampening public enthusiasm: there just doesn’t seem much to do up there. Astronauts’ crazy antics in zero gravity looked tired even by the end of the Apollo missions, although it never quite reached the tawdry depths of Pizza Hut’s publicity stunt when it paid around a million dollars to have one of its pizzas sent to the space station via a Russian rocket in 2001. Seeing space exploration subsidised by fast-food outlets can hardly have enhanced the noble sense of endeavour and ambition that the space agencies seek to cultivate.

Some say the ISS shows nations co-operating rather than competing – a welcome change to its Cold War origins, it’s true, but this co-operation lacks any real goal beyond itself, and many people would rather see that spirit harnessed to tackle terrestrial challenges such as climate change or water scarcity. For China and India, space exploration has become again a nationalistic vehicle; for Elon Musk, Richard Branson and their ilk it is an opportunity for profit and advertising. If human space flight were ever to become safe enough to be routine then it will be stripped of the very mystique on which its allure depends. It will become tourism, or industry, or a bit of both and in either event just another theatre of commerce. It will be conducted not by frontiersmen but by salesmen and CEOs.

Space will not, after all, let us run silently from our crises. As the American anthropologist and philosopher Loren Eiseley has said: “Space flight is a brave venture, but upon the soaring rockets are projected all the fears and evasions of mankind.” In the end, a handful of moon rocks were not inspiration enough, nor a solution to any problems. There are good reasons why we have not gone back to the moon.

Philip Ball’s books include “Beyond Weird: Why Everything You Thought You Knew About Quantum Physics is Different” (Bodley Head)

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