Why have we never been back to the moon?

July 8th, 2009
Were the Apollo missions the end of the future? A new book by an academic at the University of Leicester explores the cultural implications of the first Apollo moon landing, which has its 40th anniversary on July 20th. Space Travel and Culture: From Apollo to Space Tourism edited by David Bell and Martin Parker contains essays which look back on the last forty years of NASA, and the Soviet space programme.

Parker, a Professor of Culture and Organization at Leicester’s School of Management, believes that Armstrong and Aldrin walking on the moon marked the end of the age of industry. ‘The Apollo programme grew from a sense that all problems could be solved with big science and technology. But when the last mission left the surface of the moon in 1972, the USA was mired in Vietnam and Watergate.’

Even now, the moon missions were the most complex projects ever undertaken. For eight years, over 400 thousand people working for 20 thousand different organizations worked towards a single goal. Armstrong and Aldrin may have only spent two hours walking on the moon, but the cultural impact of the programme was huge. Across the world, visions of a science fiction future became common in art, architecture, food, music, clothing, domestic design and so on. ‘Ordinary people believed that they would go to work in rocket boots, and that their children might work on Mars. This was the space age, an age where nothing was impossible, apart from the idea that everything was going to stay the same’ said David Bell, a lecturer in geography at the University of Leeds.

But everything did stay the same. Forty years later, technology is small, not big, and the problems of the Earth have not been solved by space food pills or colonies on other planets. The space shuttles are soon to be retired, and the International Space Station just goes round in circles, going nowhere. Though the USA has announced a programme to make a moon landing by 2020, progress is painfully slow and it is more likely that the Indian or Chinese space programmes will get there first. Or perhaps even the private sector. Virgin Galactic, Richard Branson’s latest venture, has plans to fly the super-rich to the edge of space for five minutes in a few years time.

The book contains a series of chapters on such odd topics as the importance of the checklist, the archaeology of space travel and the importance of the astronauts’ wives. ‘The fortieth anniversary is a bitter-sweet moment’ said Parker. ‘We can celebrate the amazing achievement, and wonder about that bit of the future that leaked into our past. But we can also mourn the end of the space age, and wonder why, if we could put a man on the moon forty years ago, we can’t solve the problems of the earth now.’

Source: University of Leicester

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