Although there is really nothing new to say on this subject, the least we can do is to look back at a few basic truths. Much was said and written on the anniversary day of Apollo XI, 20th July 2009. In fact, what we were able to give to our companion of every night, the Moon, were the 12 men who I have had the immense privilege of meeting, in passing for some of them, whilst others I have really got to know well. Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, “Pete” Conrad, “Al” Bean, “Al” Shepard, “Ed” Mitchell, “Dave” Scott, James Irwin, John W. Young, “Charlie” Duke, “Gene” Cernan, “Jack” Schmitt: 12 names who have walked on the Moon, all of whom deserve our profound admiration, whenever they are mentioned. We earthlings carried out 6 missions with Moon landings, from Apollo XI to Apollo XVII, with the exception of Apollo XIII which, although her crew did not land on the Moon, still represents the greatest human success of all the Apollo missions! And when the “Apollo Men” confided in me, they all told of how they had worked ceaselessly, in an almost obsessive way, to bring this fantastic project undertaken by NASA into being, with the whole Nation behind them. Barely a short drive on the lunar surface or some other escapade of the same type, depending on the daring nature of the mission, and they brought back to Earth everything possible in an attempt to understand something of what still remains the most disturbing of all the mysteries of our time.
It’s interesting to note that still today we use lots of the technological developments that were made necessary by this wonderful adventure: the science of materials pushed to the extreme, highperformance, reliable cryogenic motors and high level I.T. intelligence, despite power that would be seen as derisory today compared to the computers that are now available. Above all, extraordinary progress was made in extremely complex industrial organisation, involving numerous players working across the whole of the United States… prefiguring what we achieved much later when Airbus was developed.
There has been so much human and technological progress! All space travel and discovery has resulted in progress, ever since we have been capable of leaving the Earth’s atmosphere and overcoming the acceleration of gravity that presides over our human destiny and models our development as earthlings. In this respect the Apollo programme was the greatest example of what space adventure should be and specifically demonstrates what should justify the sending of humans into Space.
There are three factors here:
- Technological progress, which is legitimate in view of the human and financial effort involved
- True scientific progress, because Science, the furthering of our knowledge and of our understanding of the Universe, should be the main driving force behind these programmes
- And finally, the Dream must be present too, because it’s as essential to us as bread and water.
These three factors were brought together in their most ultimate form in the magnificent Apollo programme. However they are singularly absent from the current programme for the “ISS” international space station. Where have we gone wrong!…
So the first half of the 20th century did more than prove its worth by giving Adventure and the World a vision, an understanding and a taste for enterprise that have been lost, to a certain extent, since 19th December 1972, when Apollo XVII returned to Earth. And the prodigious effects of Space Discovery in our daily lives are not sufficient in themselves to soften the blow of the disillusion felt by my American comrades, those who were due to go to the Moon after 1972 and those who hoped to return there. My disillusion remains intact too, since when I returned from my flight in 1985 I believed that, for a young colonel aged 39, a trip to the moon was still within my reach, an accessible dream!
We were pioneers in the Conquest of Space, when it was still risky and dangerous, at the time when the shuttle was - even more so than today - a mere firework that could easily go out of control! No-one thinks of laying on Christopher Columbus the blame for the deaths of the many men who lost their lives nor for the vessels that foundered in dangerous seas! Today, with the sole aim of regaining something of the lost lunar ambition, it is a good idea to remember the immense disappointment shared with Gene Cernan, when he realised that nothing would really be done to follow-up and continue with their fabulous adventure. You will doubtless gain a better understanding of what I am meaning on reading his last “lunar” words which unfortunately were not given the honour of being heard, “Bob, this is Gene, I’m on the moon and as I take man’s last step on its surface before returning home again for a while - but let’s hope not for too long - I’d just like to say what, I believe, history will remember. That the challenge taken up by America today has forged the human destiny of tomorrow. And when we leave the Moon, here at Taurus-Littrow, we leave as we came and, God willing, as we will return, in a spirit of peace and hope for the whole of Humanity. Crew of Apollo XVII, have a good trip!” As you now know, there was no follow-up to these words! He saw a return to the Moon as something quite natural, in the order of things, as was their journey to our satellite. And I fear that with time, in terms of any re-conquest of the Moon, any kind of human dimension has been lost!
Things should be looked at head on; my companions will probably be dead before the world sees any other human being on the Moon. They dreamed of returning there, and then they dreamed of seeing their young “protégés” going. They’re still dreaming of course, as are my companions and I, who were never given the chance of actually going, but they already know that they will not be watching their TV screens, nor will they be in the NASA control room to see the next steps taken by Man on the Moon! How much time will have passed since 19th December 1972? I defy anyone to be able to predict that today! And who today remembers that the command module for the Apollo XVII mission was called “America”, as re-quested by the last three companions, Gene Cernan, Ron Evans and Harrisson Schmitt, and that the lunar module bore the beautifully ambitious name of “Challenger”?
The end of the 20th century proved sad and morose unfortunately, and all the technology available to us does not enable us to envisage any spaces further afield that those of our parents and grandparents! Like Mallarmé, we despair of leaving one day for distant, prodigious shores, this time lunar. Since Apollo XVII no human being has been any further than 1000 km from our Earth!
The Americans are promising us “Constellation” and inhabited lunar bases to be built by 2020. The Russians remain silent (are they working on some secret project?) Japan in 1990, China in 2006 and India in 2008 have all sent out space probes with a view to entering the race to colonise our Moon. Lots of promises, but still nothing concrete! Going back to the Moon is always “in 20 years time”. But what will actually happen? Will we remain like “Sister Anne” or will the 21st century - almost 10 years of which have already passed - take us on renewed space Iliads?
To you, and for “Points de Vue Magazine” which I love, I must confess that for we astronauts who truly love the Moon, Mars and space travel even further afield, Odysseys are of little importance… Epic adventures will always magnify our dreams much more than the return journey ever could…