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13 March 2006updated 27 Sep 2015 3:00am

’If there had been a little man waving back from Mars, we would have been right there. But there was just a rock’

Have we really lost our enthusiasm for space, or are we simply waiting for the discovery of some pro

By Zoe Williams

You don’t hear much about space these days – and when you do, you hear about how expensive it all is. It’s a lot like listening to a rich businessman who bought a racehorse when it was fashionable and now has this great four-year-old beast who hasn’t won anything and still costs him a fortune. Could we really have lost our enthusiasm for space? Or is it merely in abatement, pending the discovery of some little green men?

I was in Nasa this bright, hard Floridian February, the same day that Richard Branson had arrived to meet the record-breaking aviator Steve Fossett and, apparently, conduct some top-secret doings that were averted owing to some invisible (probably top-secret) cloud. Never- theless, the whiff of the bearded one re-minded us that there are two prongs to our space ambitions these days (the International Space Station doesn’t really feature in either of them): the first is the governmental target of Mars; the second is the civilian target to put super-rich playboys in space for a couple of hours and many, many thousands of pounds.

We were being stewarded round the place by Charlie Duke, veteran of the Apollo 16 mission in 1972, the tenth man, and one of only 12, to walk on the moon. Now 70, spry and fit and incredibly courteous, he is tracked by the eyes of 100 space nuts wherever he walks, which I suppose is only to be expected. We were, after all, in the Nasa visitor centre; the kind of people who make the journey here can reasonably be expected both to recognise Charles Moss Duke Jr and urgently, desperately, want to breathe in the air near where he’s standing. Anyway, besides all the funny stories about the time they accidentally spilt orange juice in zero gravity and it went up their noses, he quietly conjured for us the huge difference between the attitude to space exploration in the 1960s and 1970s and attitudes today.

Less than a decade separated John F Kennedy’s swashbuckling “we will land on the moon” speech and the first moon landing. Duke pointed out: “We had an open chequebook and 400,000 people working on it.” The enthusiasm was absolutely feverish – the only reason there’s a control tower in Houston, miles away from the launch centre in Orlando, is that Lyndon B Johnson, space-nut and also crazy Texas enthusiast (the way Texans seem often, unfathomably, to be), simply stamped his feet until it was so. Even before the end of the Apollo missions, “the political climate had changed from this being an American ideal, ‘let’s land on the moon’, to ‘why are we spending all this money on the moon?'”.

Space travel, to Kennedy, was a political pep pill, like launching a war without the unpleasantness, and for some reason it’s never really recovered that buoyancy. Only in China does it remain, really, a statement of national pride and progress. Duke, who’s been invited to China on two separate occasions this century, remarked that “the Chinese see it as a national objective to improve their international stature in this regard. Their programme has improved dramatically in the past five years. They have the political will, you see – with Apollo, it was a political decision to go to the moon. It turned out to be a great scientific programme as well, but its real impetus was political. I don’t think we’ll ever have the support that Apollo had.”

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The Apollo missions still hold incredible sway over the public imagination, as evinced by HBO’s forthcoming DVD release of From the Earth to the Moon (1998), a boysie space homage produced by Tom Hanks. “We had limitless money, then; $16.8bn [Nasa’s proposed budget for 2007] sounds limitless, but it ain’t.” Duke attributes this dropping-off of enthusiasm to the marked lack of aliens. “The first TV camera they turned on, from Viking, if there had been a little man waving back, we would have been right there. But there was just a rock. We could get to Mars in 25 years if the money was there, but I doubt it will be.”

Space exploration has been creaking in a budgetary vice for the length of the Bush administration. At the beginning of this month Nasa’s administrator, Mike Griffin, announced a hastened conclusion to the building of the International Space Station – rather than taking another 28 missions, they plan to finish it in 16. “Nasa simply cannot afford to do everything that our many consti-tuencies would like us to do,” Griffin said. Show-stopping numbers such as the Mars exploration rovers weren’t affected, but the mission to Jupiter’s romantic icy moon Europa, which could have a liquid ocean beneath its crust, was axed – at least for the time being.

As for civilian space travel, I don’t think it is unduly Anglocentric of me to surmise that Branson is probably the driving force behind it. Governments certainly aren’t interested. Branson has been quoted in the past as saying he wants to create some mass-market space tourism, but the most recent plans – a place on a vessel orbiting the earth for a hundred grand – aren’t what you’d call “mass”.

There’s a lot of scepticism about whether you could ever make any money on a venture like this. Andrew Nahum, curator of aeronautics at the Science Museum in London, remarked recently: “You have got to put it in proportion – what you are doing is something more ambitious than Concorde. Even that was too expensive and never made a buck.”

Yet Branson remains very keen on talking about space, dressing up in space clothes, planning space missions in which he’s a co-pilot, and meeting astronauts. Charlie Duke seemed strangely impressed by him, rather in the way that you might be impressed by a toddler who could drink custard through its nose. “That kind of initiative is only going to come from a private investor, rather than a government. And it seems pretty unlikely at the moment – but then, I’ve learned not to say anything’s impossible. When I landed on the moon, my dad was 65 and he could scarcely believe it, whereas my son was three and didn’t think it was any big deal. So in three generations, it went from impossible to no big deal.”

As regards civilian travel, there will always be people with insane amounts of money, and since entrepreneurs share many temperamental characteristics with psychopaths, they may well want to spend it doing something very dangerous and rather dark. As for objectives at a governmental level, it feels, in the current climate, as if space travel is too innocent and non-confrontational to command the resources it requires. What we need, from space in general, certainly from Mars if we’re to reach it, is a bit of hostility. Then it’d be Thunderbirds are go, all over again.

From the Earth to the Moon is available on DVD from 20 March (HBO Video)

Zoe Williams writes for the Guardian

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