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rushed nature of the enterprise ensured systems were developed with speed rather than sustainability in mind, so when Apollo ended, it left almost no practical legacy. Its saving grace was the thing no one foresaw or intended. Perspective. It was theatre. It’s hard to imagine a renewed lunar push adding much to this. Some enthusiasts point to the possibility of mining the moon for minerals, or building power plants to beam energy back to earth, but do we really want multinational corporations chomping up humanity’s most ethereal and enduring companion? Perhaps a moon base would provide a good staging post for the inevitable tilt at Mars, although it remains the case that developing more versatile robots would better reward the huge investment in time, money and invention that such an undertaking will require. It may never happen anyway. Bush has carefully structured his plan so that the early work can be accomplished on NASA’s existing budget. Only after he’s left the White House will the big spending begin, leaving his unfortunate heirs to foot the bill. Don’t book your seat just yet.

alone and quite possibly unique. If we were to be swamped by more of these images, will their meaning be lost? And is it childish to note that no return could match the sense of drama or mystery attending the first landings? At the time, no one had a detailed knowledge of what was up there: scientists warned that the spaceship might disappear into a layer of dust a mile thick, or that lunar soil might explode when it hit oxygen in the crew cabin, while members of the public fretted over whether the astronauts would be armed against the threat of hostile life forms. My own favourite conjecture came from the ever-provocative pen of Norman Mailer, who asked, “What if Armstrong were to take a step on the moon and simply disappear?” Little wonder then that I spent my two years of tracking down the moonwalkers in a kind of trance, which I took months to snap out of. For me, the appeal of Apollo rests partly with the fact that it achieved almost nothing of concrete worth. John F Kennedy conceived the moon project as a race against the Russians: the science could have been done by robots, and the technological advances could have been achieved far more cost-effectively by other means. What’s more, the

A few years ago, I went in search of the original moonwalkers. There were only 12 of them to begin with, but by the time a chance meeting shocked me into realising that they were getting on in years and one day would soon be gone, three had already passed on, leaving a reduced cadre of nine. Today, hundreds of people have been into space, but only 24 can truly say they have left the earth – breaking free of her gravitational embrace and heading for Deep Space – and all between 1969 and 1972. The space shuttle’s beat is 200 miles, but the moon is a quarter million miles away, and the two perspectives on our own world could scarcely be more different. From near-Earth orbit, the planet looks huge, majestic, aweinspiring, but on a slow drift to the moon it acquires a cosmic context, revealing itself as a tiny oasis containing only the colour you can see anywhere, and looking heartrendingly fragile, like a jewel against the sheeny black backdrop of infinity. When Neil Armstrong described noticing that he could blot out our planet completely with an up-raised thumb, someone asked him whether it made him feel big, only to receive the reply, “No, it made me feel really, really small.” Am I being selfish in wondering whether more people should be given the chance to experience this spectacle? The “whole earth” photo that the Apollo astronauts brought back from their space odyssey is still the most widely reproduced photograph on the planet, but it’s a fiendishly elusive image to capture, dependent as it is on a particular set of angles and lighting conditions. The truth is that NASA had long since given up on picturing the “whole earth” by the time a technician discovered the image lurking on a reel of film from the final mission, Apollo 17. To this day, no one knows who was responsible for that picture, and no one owns it. It exists as a fortuitous, startling testament to the earth’s true cosmic context: Andrew Smith

Andrew Smith’s Moondust: In Search of the Men Who Fell to Earth (Bloomsbury) is out now

Last Giant Leap Andrew Smith Has Met The Men That Went To The Moon, And Ponders If We’ll Ever Make It There Again

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