Friday

Friday 13/12/2002Tomorrow sees the thirtieth anniversary of one of the most poignant moments of the 20th century. You probably won't see it mentioned in the press, and among the "I Remember 1972" style nostalgiathons that infest our TV channels, it's a safe bet that no mention will be made.

Friday 13/12/2002
Tomorrow sees the thirtieth anniversary of one of the most poignant moments of the 20th century. You probably won't see it mentioned in the press, and among the "I Remember 1972" style nostalgiathons that infest our TV channels, it's a safe bet that no mention will be made. Nevertheless, at 22:54:37 GMT on December 14, 1972, Harrison 'Jack' Schmitt pressed a button and the last men to visit the moon started on their journey home. Even then, it seemed like a long time since Armstrong's one small step, and the last words spoken were certainly truer to the spirit of the astronaut corps -- "Let's get this mother out of here." More Apollo landings had been planned and cancelled, and the heady hopes of Mars and beyond were quietly abandoned to the robots. For those who -- like me -- see the exploration of space as one of the most fundamental assertions of the human spirit's ability to look outside itself, tomorrow's anniversary will be a moment of great sadness and reflection. Today, NASA tries to work out what on earth it's for, expending billions of dollars on a space station that doesn't seem to be doing anything (and that not very well) and struggles to keep its ageing Shuttle fleet going. It's a long way from the vacuum valleys of Taurus-Littrow and the crew of Apollo 17, in every sense. As for Europe and the Russians, well. Let's not talk about that. There's much to be thankful for, of course. Space and ground technology has given us a golden age of astronomy, where seemingly every day more miraculous pictures and awe-inspiring data give us greater insight into the beauty and strangeness of the universe. When men walked on the moon, the existence of planets outside the solar system was a matter of pure conjecture -- now we know of hundreds, and people are talking seriously about taking pictures of 'the blue dot' of Earth-like planets. It's not possible to browse the pictures from Hubble or Mars Surveyor without amazement, and even the almost-nonexistent signals from the decades-old Voyagers and Pioneers now speeding through interstellar space beyond the outer planets are revealing new mysteries. But for now, nobody can say even which decade will see the next humans leaving Earth orbit, outward bound. It may be the Chinese, it may be private enterprise, it may even be on the back of some strange twist of quantum physics instead of crude rocketry: whatever it is, we'll probably see the 50th anniversary of Apollo 17 first. Next time you're out in the evening and the Moon is up, look at it and remember that there are greater things to aim for than can be found down here in the dirt. -------------------------------- And finally, Esther, if you're stuck for a last minute Christmas present... there's no point in ordering ZDNet UK's News Director Matt Loney's new book, even though it's now available through Amazon, because it won't be delivered until February. However, if you fancy a spot of cannibalism, tribes of women, mad militia and more hot and steamy jungle action than you'll find in a week of Web browsing, it's highly recommended. Nor can you buy Electric 6's new single, Danger! High Voltage until the new year, even though it's one kicking bit of polycarbonate. That's it for 2002. See you in the new year. Ho ho ho.

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