When Neil Armstrong stepped on to the moon 50 years ago, it was down to a giant leap of political and scientific imagination. His footprints on the powdery lunar surface changed the way we saw ourselves, confirming that humanity could escape its earthly coils. The mission unleashed a dream of what we as a species might do. Yet only a dozen people have walked on the moon, all between the summer of 1969 and the end of 1972.
Did we lose our primordial urge to explore? Almost certainly not – though Buzz Aldrin this week decried “50 years of non-progress”, probes have travelled to Pluto and beyond. But times have changed. The cold war rivalry that catalysed the space race vanished. The Soviet Union was first with a satellite, dog and astronaut in space. Today Washington and Moscow play the great game in the Middle East, not the heavens, although both are now contemplating a return to the moon: Donald Trump wants to make America great again by putting astronauts there by 2024, though some think China may get there first; Russia talks of landing cosmonauts by 2030.
Then there’s the money. By 1966 the United States was spending 4.4% of the national budget on Nasa. Now the US cash for space barely touches 0.5% of GDP. More striking is that space is increasingly a playground for rich men. There is a risk that, thanks to Elon Musk and Richard Branson, manned space flight degenerates into conspicuous consumption for the super-rich. The world’s wealthiest man, Jeff Bezos, also dreams of going to the moon, this time to stay and turn it into an industrial park. This is not as silly as it sounds: helium-3, which could be a plentiful source of energy, could be mined there. Sceptics might say that before Mr Bezos carves up the moon he should sort out the business model of the corporation that pays for his plans, but the next giant leaps may well come from entrepreneurs, not states.
If Armstrong’s stroll produced the greatest broadcast in television history, then another astronaut produced the most significant image. The picture of the Earth rising above the moon’s horizon was pivotal for environmentalism, since it induced the sense that our home planet was something to be cared for rather than plundered. Underlying the idea of living on another planet is that we might need to if we continue making a mess of the one we have.
However, the treaty that governs who can do what is even older than Armstrong’s steps on the moon. Private firms and smaller nations have joined the race for the stars. Luxembourg is positioning itself to be the centre of the space business. This will need careful handling.
Space isn’t what it used to be. But one image of what happened on the way to the moon in 1969 needs challenging. In celebrating the lunar landing, let’s remember that it wasn’t only buzz-cut white men who had the right stuff: behind the scenes were female mathematicians, several of them African-American, tasked with plotting the route to the moon. Without them, Mr Armstrong would never have got there.