Back in the 1950s, space travel was a futuristic concept, familiar from comics and cornflakes packets. By 1969, Neil Armstrong's "one small step" on the moon had made it a reality. It seemed a high point in a decade blighted by the arms race and the Vietnam war. But soon it was all over: the last lunar landing was in 1972.
Nobody under 35 can remember the era when men walked on the moon. To young people today, it's a remote historical episode: they know the Americans landed men on the moon, just as they know the Egyptians built the pyramids; but the motivations seem almost as bizarre in the one case as in the other. The film Apollo 13 -- a "dramatised reconstruction", starring Tom Hanks, of the near-disaster that befell three astronauts on a voyage around the moon -- was for me (and I suspect for others of similar vintage who watched it) an evocative reminder of an episode we followed anxiously at the time. But to young people in the audience, the outdated gadgetry and the "right stuff" values seemed almost as antiquated as a traditional "western".
Many people expected that, by now, we would have a permanent lunar base, large orbiting "space habitats", or even an expedition to Mars. But none of these things has happened. The Apollo programme was a transient spin-off from the superpower rivalry of the cold-war era -- it wasn't a step towards any longer-term goal that could inspire sustained public support.
Manned spaceflight now seems a rather jaded spectator sport. We admired the Russian cosmonauts in the 1990s more for their fortitude and DIY skills than for anything else, as they coped with one malfunction after another in the decrepit Mir spacecraft. The trip of the ex-astronaut John Glenn in the space shuttle didn't recapture the excitement of his pioneering flight 36 years earlier; and most of us were merely bemused when another elderly American, Dennis Tito, paid the Russians $20m for a week's "tourism" in space.
The centrepiece of the US space programme is the International Space Station: when fully assembled, it will be the size of a football field, and will have cost more than its weight in gold. Even if it gets finished -- something that seems uncertain, given the immense and ever-rising costs, and prolonged delays -- the station will in itself be neither practical nor inspiring. Thirty years after men walked on the moon, it enables a new generation of astronauts to circle Earth, in more comfort than Mir could offer, but much more expensively. Several other nations, though not the UK, were persuaded to contribute to the space station. These commitments will foreclose international partnerships on a whole raft of alternative projects (for instance, satellites to monitor the environment) that could have offered greater political and social benefits.
In the US, the scientific community consistently opposed the space station. Opposition from, for instance, the American Physical Society ceased only when the project's political momentum rendered it unstoppable. For most of science (with the obvious exception of space medicine), it is as sub-optimal a base as an ocean liner would be for ground-based telescopes. Its best scientific use could be as an assembly-base for large and fragile equipment (for instance, gossamer thin mirrors for huge space telescopes), which could then be gently tugged into a more remote orbit.
By now, unmanned space technology has proved its worth. Satellites are routinely used for telecommunications, navigation, and for monitoring Earth's climate, oceans and terrain. Techniques would not have developed so fast without the impetus of the cold war, but civilian expenditure has now forged ahead of military. This trend could, however, be reversed if space gets militarised as a consequence of the proposed antimissile defence system.
Space technology has led to a crescendo of …