I find it a little odd that Manchester University’s Jodrell Bank Observatory has been declared a Unesco World Heritage Site, since the tag is usually associated with ancient ruins like Stonehenge, Egypt’s pyramids and the Acropolis of Athens. The famous radio astronomy dish has only loomed over the Cheshire Plain since 1957. That’s AD.
Following several upgrades it still claims to be one of the world’s most powerful telescope arrays, and earlier this year was part of an international sky survey which discovered thousands of previously undetected galaxies in the universe. Yet cynics may remark that the heritage business is exactly where this and other interplanetary eavesdroppers belong, since the brave new world of manned space exploration and colonisation that seemed possible back in the 1950s and 60s has turned out to be little more than science fiction, and the wild predictions of what became known as the Space Race simply supplied the makers of Star Wars with a decent living.
This failure has been underlined by the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 astronauts making their historic moon landing. As a child I can remember watching NASA’s live pictures of Neil Armstrong taking “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” then seeing TV programmes like Star Trek and the American sitcom My Favourite Martian and believing this was what the future held in my lifetime.
Space – “the final frontier” – had been crossed and in 50 years’ time, it was said, we would be packing suitcases and taking holidays on the moon. But today there are no out-of-this-world cheap flights operated by an EasyRocket or a starship2.com.
Some believe the Apollo 11 moon landing never actually happened. My friend Steve in Leeds, who knows every post-Dallas Grassy Knoll conspiracy theory going, points to evidence that man hasn’t travelled more than 250 miles from planet Earth – the distance between Sheffield and Edinburgh – because of an impenetrable deadly zone of highly charged particles called the Van Allen Radiation Belt. There is evidence that the TV footage and photos of the moon landing were staged right here on Earth, he contends.
But if you believe we have really been there, then return visits are suddenly all the rage. China put down a robot rover in January, and as you read this India has its Chandrayaan-2 spacecraft on its way to land another one near the moon’s south pole. An Israeli probe crash landed there in April while the USA, Europe and Russia have announced their own lunar missions.
But what is the point of spending trillions on these projects when there is so much poverty and hunger here? And coping with the effects of climate change is likely to consume more and more resources. After all, the moon is just an uninhabitable piece of rock. I remember that old joke about an astronaut walking into a bar on the lunar surface but coming straight out again complaining there was “no atmosphere”.
Manchester University’s Professor Brian Cox recently hosted the BBC2 series The Planets showing how Mars, in living memory thought to support a race of extraterrestrials, is just a barren desert with no signs of life. Every other planet in the solar system is also inhospitable. So we’re not going anywhere, folks. Better protect and enjoy planet Earth while we can.