I wouldn’t go (in) there if I were you

You can take the following as my contribution to the 40th anniversary of the first moonwalk. This piece has nothing whatsoever to do with the late entertainer Michael Jackson Esq., and little to do with the moon, for that matter.

I had just turned five years old on 20 July 1969, and, on my primary school television in New Zealand I distinctly remember watching the Apollo 11 spectacle with a “WTF?” kind of attitude. Little has changed in the intervening four decades, despite my admiration for Neil Armstrong and the thousands of other talented and heroic individuals involved in the space programme.

My current astronautical interests are far more mundane, and include the recurrent problems with, er, orbital waste disposal. Yet again the toilet on the International Space Station has gone on the blink, and, with a record 13 inhabitants currently on-station, the lack of a properly functioning kosmic kazi poses serious problems. I would even go as far as to say that the crapping crisis threatens the future of humanity in space. NASA Flight director Brian Smith telling reporters that toilet troubles were “not going to be an issue” will not wash.

Armstrong’s fellow Apollo 11 astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins are reportedly calling for the moon to be skipped now in favour of a manned mission to Mars. Is Mr Armstrong bothered? Probably not, and I know how he feels.

Apollo was politics-driven, not the result of science and engineering imperatives. Since then the space programme has focused on tangible scientific goals, and, while humans have largely kept their feet on the ground, there have been huge advances in space science and Earth observation. Mars is a realisable objective, but possibly not for another generation. Right now we need further investment in robotic Earth and planetary observation missions, and the development of new propulsion systems and delivery vehicles.