One giant leap backwards

PUBLISHED : Friday, 23 September, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 23 September, 2005, 12:00am

Of the few rules that have guided me through life, the one I have adhered to most strictly is the one about looking forwards and never back. In essence, this means never moving back in with my mother, working at places I have already been, or buying from shops which sold me something that stopped functioning the day the warranty expired.

Only once have I broken my rule and, as proof of how sound it is, I suffered the consequences. When I took the exactly one-year-old CD player (which had fallen mercifully silent in the middle of Wham's Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go) back to where I had got it, I was convinced not only to buy another one, but also to snap up an expensive camera - which used batteries and film that are now impossible to obtain.

I acknowledge that there are flaws to being so principled. What if the owner of the last newspaper I worked at, media tycoon Rupert Murdoch, phoned to offer me a job as his combined right- and left-hand man at an annual salary of US$100 million with benefits, perks and a 20-hour working week based at offices in the Bahamas? Do I tell him that, no, I have a nice job already and would he mind terribly not phoning again?

When that predicament arises, I am certain that I will handle it with the usual careful consideration, weighing the pros and cons and thinking of that useless camera.

With such thoughts in mind, it was with a sense of bewilderment on Tuesday that I found out the United States was going to spend US$104 billion to put Americans back on the moon by 2018.

Since the US conquered the moon in 1969 - and thought the rocky, dusty, crater-filled place so interesting that it stopped going there in 1972 - the decision seemed somewhat retrogressive.

Even worse, to show how far American space innovation has come since then, the US space agency Nasa announced it would be using the same style of craft - a capsule atop a rocket. Do not get me wrong - I believe exploration of space is enormously worthwhile and that without it, humankind will most likely be doomed.

Sooner or later, pollution and environmental destruction will get the better of us and we will need an escape route to ensure survival of the species. It is likely to be somewhere that is farther away than Disneyland and, with luck, will be minus Mickey.

America's space boffins claim that returning to the moon is stage one of such a scenario - that it will be the launch-pad to a manned mission to Mars by 2050 or thereabouts. As Mars is the nearest planet to Earth that has water - albeit frozen and in uncertain quantities beneath the ground - the planet has been earmarked as a future outpost.

Without an atmosphere like the Earth's to blast through, the moon would provide a good base for travel to distant destinations, and people there could experiment with learning to live in oxygen-free environments.

Although lacking in space experience - the closest I have been was on a plane that had to climb to more than 12,000 metres to avoid turbulence - I do not buy the moon argument. The only reason the US is repeating what it did two generations ago is because McDonald's and other American fast-food conglomerates have run out of places to start new franchises, and the lunar surface is the least expensive option.

Now, if I were in charge of the American space programme, my aims would be loftier and truer. They would be to go where humankind has not been before in the hope that, on some strange and alien surface, a cure could be found for all the world's problems - including certain American political leaders.

Not only would that be forward-looking, but there is also just the teeniest chance that it would have a camera shop run by a nice, honest sales assistant who stocks film and outsized lithium batteries.

Peter Kammerer is the Post's foreign editor