Out of the 12 humans who have ever been to the Moon, eight survive today. It's a bit like counting the number of people still alive to recount their times in the Azad Hind Fauj. Except with the Moonwalkers, we're not talking about a bunch and their adventures from the 1940s. This tight band of men had landed on another world, the first and only one outside our planet till date, from July 21, 1969, to December 14, 1972. That's less than the time elapsed between two Olympics.
Neil Armstrong, who died last Sunday, was the first to set foot on lunar soil on July 20, 1969. Eugene Cernan, now 78, was the last man to leave the Moon in December 1972. No human in the last 39 years — with all the space shuttles and International Space Station jaunts 'up there' — has gone beyond Earth's orbit. Whichever way one looks at it, this sucks big time.
Between 1969 and 1972, the future certainly looked far more futuristic than it does now. Things not only did not improve after that, but they actually dried up. A charming piece of machinery landing in Mars is not quite the same thing as having men in spacesuits pottering about in an alien terrain. As for feeling great about Sunita Williams bobbing up and down inside a tin can in space, let's face it, that's about national pride, not about mind-popping human wonderment.
The reason for no one going to space — real outer space that includes the Moon and beyond — any more lies in the reason why men were sent there in the first place: the Cold War and the qawwali contest between the United States and the Soviet Union. When the latter packed up, so did dramatic in-your-face space exploration. Gigantic amounts of money had been spent to send people to the Moon — the Soviets losing interest after the Americans beat them to it, even though the first human-made object to reach the lunar surface was the Soviet Union's Luna 2 on September 13, 1959.
If there was one person who realised that the romance of going to space was over much before most of us caught on, it was the last Moonwalker, Eugene Cernan. The 1991 comments by Cernan and his fellow Apollo 17 Moonlander Jack Schmitt are revealing: "I don't think that either Jack or I ever thought — and we kept saying that Apollo 17 was the end of the beginning and not the end — that it would take this long for this nation or mankind in general to decide not only when he's going to return but if he desires to go back to the Moon and then on to Mars... As we sit here today... we all know it's going to be after the turn of the century before Man goes back again. That, in itself, is almost an unacceptable position to be in... We kept saying that, well, we're the last for a while but somebody will be back pretty soon."
Schmitt sounds more anguished: "I don't know if you remember, Gene, but when we rendezvoused with Ron... [Apollo 17 Command Module pilot Ronald Evans who was orbiting the Moon], Houston read us a statement from Nixon in which he said, specifically, that we were the last people to visit the Moon in this century. And I really got upset... I thought that was the stupidest thing a president ever could have said to anybody. You may believe it privately, but why say that to all the young people in the world?... I was really upset. Tired, but really mad. It was just pure loss of will."
There's much talk these days of private companies such as Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic all set to send 'tourists' into space at £125,000 (about Rs. 1.1 crore) per passenger. But this 'Thomas Cook Plus' is really about sending rich folks to the outer reaches of the Earth's atmosphere, hardly the stuff of space exploration.
The problem facing any attempt to bring space travel back on the table is that there's very little in terms of short-term benefits for people who were once interested in spending dollops on this sort of thing. In these days of cost-benefit reports, sending a multi-billion-dollar manned mission into space, in the hope that some ancillary discovery or invention will be made and marketed along the way, seems thin.
But Manmohan Singh warmed the cockles of my four-chambered heart when he announced a Mars Mission in his August 15 speech. I don't care whether it's an Indian, Fijian or a Chinese mission. I just want it to graduate into a manned mission before I cop it. Although I have more faith in a Dutch reality TV company's plans to send contestants on a one-way trip to Mars for a Big Brother/Bigg Boss-style extra-terrestrial show.
In Andrew Smith's moving book Moondust, the author writes how every Moonwalker returned to Earth a changed man. "...the twelve had to find answers," he writes, "to a question that had never been asked in quite the same way before — namely, 'Where do you go after you've been to the Moon?'" The answer for the rest of us down here isn't Antarctica or the Great Hadron Collider. And it certainly isn't the bloody internet.