What has the space race ever done for us?
Credit: Mark Wilson / Getty   

In 1956, a foreign policy analyst at the RAND corporation proposed sending an atom bomb to the moon. An explosion on the lunar surface, he suggested, would produce a spectacular visual display. Daft as the plan sounds, it did not immediately go away. Two years later, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory revived the idea and a secret feasibility study was conducted. According to that study, a lunar explosion would have “beneficial psychological results”, namely scaring the crap out of the Russians. 

I was reminded of RAND’s clever jape when I heard the news last week that the Chinese had landed their Chang’e 4 spacecraft on the far side of the moon.  Their lunar probe is a great deal more sophisticated than a brutish atom bomb, but the political message is basically the same. The Chinese were telling the world: “Look what we can do.” Ever since the 1950s, space spectaculars have figured prominently on the CV of a superpower.   

Chang’e 4 is certain to have annoyed Donald Trump. Americans get rattled when their technological supremacy is threatened. During the Cold War, the Soviets devised the perfect way to undermine American confidence. They took a simple rocket and used it to launch into space a satellite, then a dog, then a man, then a woman, then two men. Each feat suggested technological progression, but was in fact a case of same old, same old. Russian space stunts distracted attention from the fact that the Americans were forging ahead in space, by launching weather, spy and communication satellites. To most people, however, all that technical wizardry paled in comparison to a dog in orbit. 

Space, as the Chinese understand, provides an excellent arena for populist politics. Back in the Cold War, the space pioneer Wernher von Braun was a genius at manipulating public opinion with space gimmicks. He teamed up with Walt Disney in order to stoke public expectations, presenting space as a great adventure rather than sober science. As he was fond of saying, “There’s no bucks without Buck Rogers.” The Apollo mission to the moon, fuelled by Von Braun’s hype, was a political stunt paid for, in part, by severe cutbacks in NASA’s budget for space science and satellite technology.

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The populist Von Braun would have loved the world we live in now, where simplistic soundbites, febrile tweets and outrageous gimmicks have so much impact. He understood that people tend to turn off their critical faculties when judging what happens up there. We’re easily bowled over by the awesome majesty of outer space and, as a result, fail to perceive the politics behind massively expensive projects. Staggering amounts of money are spent on a Mars probe, without any concerted discussion of purpose or benefit. Those white-coated techies at NASA seem like benign scientists, not cynical politicians. We fail to notice the far side of the moon.   

Space is a gigantic sleight-of-hand trick – flashy gimmicks out there mask nefarious objectives down here. Elon Musk understands that dynamic as well as anyone. A year ago, he used his Space-X rocket to launch a cherry-red Tesla roadster toward Mars. It missed its target, but hardly anyone noticed. We’re told that David Bowie was playing on the car’s speakers as it headed for the asteroid belt. How cool is that? Journalists were predictably effusive in their praise, with few inclined to question its real purpose: was this about space exploration, or about selling cars? The uber-confident Musk seemed not only to be exploiting people’s gullibility but making fun of it at the same time.  

The Chinese landed Chang’e 4 on the far side of the moon in part because that had never been done before. Space “firsts” always attract attention even if they don’t have much point. In truth, that feat could have been achieved at any time in the past 50 years. The Chinese stunt has been cleverly wrapped in scientific justification to make it seem less shallow. Apparently, the landing will allow scientists to investigate the solar wind and better understand the first moments of the Big Bang. They’re even going to try to grow plants on the probe. Raise your hand if any of this is going to make your life better. 

Whenever something big happens in space, my phone starts ringing since I’m a dependable space cynic. Apparently, that’s a rare thing, so I get called a lot. Unfortunately, my argument doesn’t lend itself to bullet points and 15-second soundbites, so I’m often misunderstood – labelled a Luddite. A NASA astronaut once suggested that if I’d lived in 1492 I would have opposed Columbus’s voyage.

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I’m not a Luddite. I’m all in favour of sensible space projects, but I have one cardinal rule, namely that whatever happens up there should benefit us down here. When Columbus went to the New World, he brought back things that improved the lives of Europeans. The success of his voyage can be measured by the fact that it was repeated – again and again. Among other things, he paved the way toward the discovery of the potato. Being rather fond of chips, I’m inclined to admire Columbus.   

There’s a simple reason why there’s not been a manned lunar landing since 1972. There are no potatoes on the moon. It’s just a desolate rock – a forbidding place that makes Antarctica seem like paradise. And, yes, I know there’s talk of Helium-3, supposedly the fuel of the future, on the moon. But I suspect there are simpler solutions to our energy problems than establishing a massive mining operation on the moon.

Helium-3 is another one of those juicy carrots NASA dangles in front of the public in order to get funding. In truth, the moon’s main importance is as a platform for political gimmickry. Space projects are undemocratic. Ordinary people – in the US, India, China, Russia or the EU – are seldom consulted about what they actually want from their space agencies. My guess is that, if they were consulted, responses would be rather negative. Most people don’t really care whether microbes exist on Mars.

During the 1960s, Americans enjoyed the feats of the Gemini and Apollo astronauts, but when pollsters asked whether those missions were worth the £35 billion invested, the majority said “no”. Gallup found that most people judged the Vietnam War a better investment than Apollo.   

If asked to name the most important space event in history, almost everyone would say the Apollo 11 lunar landing. Yet they would be wrong. It’s difficult to see how that landing changed lives, besides providing a brief moment of excitement.

The most important event actually occurred on 10 July 1962, when Telstar, the world’s first communication satellite, was launched. Out of that event came global news broadcasts, live television sports, mobile phones, FaceTime, GPS and Tinder. A tiny satellite shaped our modern world. In a contest over impact, Telstar blows Apollo out of the sky. 

Just before he left office, President Dwight Eisenhower vetoed Apollo because he couldn’t see how going to the moon would benefit Americans back on Earth. Eisenhower was wary of NASA’s immense talent for spending taxpayer money on esoteric projects. He wasn’t a Luddite; he simply understood what people really needed from space. We could use a bit of his wisdom today.