Touch the sky: 40 years of space travel

IN the Dumfriesshire town of Langholm they still talk about the day Neil Armstrong came to visit. It was 11 March, 1972, almost three years after the first Moon landing, but there had been no dimming of his stardom.

The first man to set foot on the Moon was in the Muckle Toon, seat of his Scottish ancestors, to receive the freedom of the burgh. Armstrong's Rolls-Royce pulled up in the bunting-decked town square, then he and his wife Janet strolled, waving, through the thronging crowds, accompanied by the Provost, a police escort and a pipe band.

He had grown used to this sort of fuss. The moment on 20 July, 1969, that he stepped out of the landing module Eagle and on to the lunar surface he had ceased to be an individual and became emblematic of human courage, optimism and intelligence. He had been bathed in what the Moon-obsessed poet Hugh MacDiarmid, a native of Langholm, once called "unearthly licht", and it continued to radiate from him in waves. In the Old Parish Church, he declared Langholm his home, but in truth he was no longer from anywhere. Not Wapakoneta, Ohio, the town of his birth; not NASA; not Scotland. His achievement had eclipsed all past connections and kinships and he belonged to the whole earth. Neil Armstrong was ours.

Now, as the 40th anniversary of the first Moon landing approaches, the Apollo 11 lunar mission seems as astonishing as ever, perhaps even more so. While other flashpoints of 1969 – Woodstock, the Manson murders, Vietnam – feel very much of the past, Armstrong's small step still gleams like the future.

Why is that? Well, the act itself was extraordinary – flying into orbit at nearly eight kilometres per second on top of a rocket weighing 3,000 tonnes, landing on a moon 240,000 miles away, getting out, walking around and then returning home in complete safety.

Even more remarkably, this was achieved using technology which, though state-of-the-art at the time, was nothing compared to what we have now. A chip-and-pin card is way beyond what was used on the first Moon landing. "The Apollo computers were frighteningly primitive," says Professor Colin McInnes, who runs a spacecraft engineering research group at Strathclyde University. "When you see the pictures of the inside of the capsule, all the manual toggle switches and dials and gauges, it looks like something from Jules Verne."

But perhaps the real reason Apollo seems awesome, even from the perspective of a new century in which we have mapped the human genome, is that no one has been to the moon since 1972. Within months of Armstrong visiting Langholm, Harrison Schmitt would become the last person to step on to the lunar surface. Flying there was something humans did for just three years. So if we look back on it with nostalgia, it's with that of a middle-aged and steady citizen thinking fondly of a dangerous phase they went through in their youth. It was a 24 billion fling.

It was also in keeping with the progressive spirit of its cultural moment. When, in 1961, JFK announced his goal of a manned Moon landing by the end of the decade, America had not yet put a man in Earth's orbit. So the Moon programme necessarily had an improvisational quality akin to the accelerated progress going on at the same time in the arts and society at large. The Moon landings are said to have required the efforts of 400,000 people. There's a theory that while half of them were motivated by patriotism and Cold Warrior zeal, the other half regarded the work as an extended happening. What could be trippier than sending someone to the Moon?

"There were rapid advances in technology because the Americans had the balls to say, 'We are going to do this,'" says Prof McInnes. "If you give a group of engineers an objective, a time scale and unlimited funding then anything's possible. We've lost that urgency and vision. We don't seem to have these big ideas any more."

But we are planning to go back. NASA has a goal of reaching the Moon by 2020 with a view to building a base from which spaceships would leave for Mars. Within the terms of the Constellation programme, the Moon would be Haymarket to Mars's Waverley. However, the deadline is likely to be pushed back as the Obama administration deals with the economic crisis. As China, Russia and India are planning Moon landings, it's possible America could lose the space race second time around.

There is also interest from private companies in lunar missions. Virgin Galactic is planning over the next 20 years to develop commercial flights to the Moon and beyond as part of the industrialisation of space which company president Will Whitehead regards as essential to human survival. So we could see Virgin Galactic rockets leaving for the Moon from Lossiemouth in order to strip-mine from the Moon dust – or regolith – the isotope Helium-3, a potential new energy source. It is said that 100 tonnes of this substance could fuel the whole earth for a year if scientists can crack the fusion process.

The mining of Helium-3 has powerful advocates, including the geologist Professor Harrison Schmitt. As the last man to step out on to the Moon, he feels a great sense of unfinished business, and considers the abandonment of Apollo a "grave historical mistake". For Schmitt, 73, lunar missions embody the pioneer spirit that drove the American settlers west, and he'd like his country to return to the Moon before China gets there. "We have a continued responsibility to be competitive at the frontier of space," he says.

But not everyone believes we should go back. Rick Stroud, author of the newly published miscellany The Book Of The Moon, is a committed lunarphile. As a boy growing up in the 1950s, the age of Sputnik and Dan Dare, Stroud fell in love with space. He converted the garden shed into a rocket and made a space helmet from a cardboard box. Later, he found Armstrong's Apollo 11 mission deeply moving and shook with excitement when he read Norman Mailer's account of the landing. Twenty years ago, he sold his house and moved into a converted coal barge on the Thames so he could feel the moon's influence on tidal water.

Stroud detects a "moral problem" at the heart of plans to return to the Moon, particularly with regard to mining Helium-3, which we are not yet able to process. "Is this the right way to deploy our resources when we can't get clean water to a billion people on the planet? And then there's the environmental question; we'd be destroying the Moon's surface and atmosphere in exactly the same way as we have destroyed the rainforests and as we are destroying the Antarctic."

There is a counterargument made bluntly by Prof McInnes: "The Moon's a dead pile of rock and dust, it's not very far away and it has a range of useful natural resources that are potentially exploitable." But Stroud believes keeping the Moon as a pristine wilderness is good for the human psyche. "As a species we need the mysterious and strange and the feeling that there is a world elsewhere," he says. "The Moon typifies that."

It's arguable that, on a subconscious level, those conspiracy theorists who claim the American government faked the Apollo missions are trying to restore to the Moon some of the mysterious power that was diminished when mankind reached it; indeed, that they are increasing the potency by adding a thick atmosphere of paranoia and plot.

Although he is not in this category, Stroud identifies the Helium-3 rush as an example of the "Moon madness" that has gripped humanity for millennia, and cites as an early example the discovery of a bone from an eagle's wing carved 32,000 years ago with notches that describe the phases of the Moon. It's tempting to draw a direct line from that eagle bone to the Eagle lunar module that Neil Armstrong landed on the Moon. Both represent mankind's urge to know more about that bright ball in the night sky.

In Scotland, we have ancient stone circles such as Callanish on Lewis which some archaeologists have argued were used by neolithic astronomer-priests in religious ceremonies and to predict eclipses. If so, Scotland's obsession with the Moon and space has continued undimmed.

You can see it in the astronomical library of James Lindsay, Earl of Crawford, who, in 1888, gifted to Edinburgh's Royal Observatory a collection that included Galileo's sketches of the Moon. You can see it in Clyde Space, a firm in Glasgow making tiny satellites in the shape of cubes. You can see it in David Harland, a self-proclaimed "hermit" who lives in "a wee cave in the backside of Kelvinbridge", a base from which he has written two dozen books on space exploration and is already planning another five. Harland, 54, has let his passport lapse, never travels anywhere and is happy to remain within a one-mile radius of his home for weeks on end. Yet he spends those weeks writing about the furthest flung journeys mankind ever made. When questioned about this irony he explains it simply: "I have the passion."

Could there be a Scottish space gene, something that gives us ginger hair, a sweet tooth and an instinctive appreciation of escape velocities? Certainly, Neil Armstrong wasn't the only astronaut with Scottish roots to walk on the Moon in 1969. There was also Alan Bean.

Apollo 12 launched on November 14, 1969. Its destination was the Sea of Storms and it took off in a storm, struck by lightning twice as it rose from the Florida coast. On board were Pete Conrad, Dick Gordon and Alan Bean, a 37-year-old Texan who was carrying with him a large swatch of MacBean tartan. Speaking now from his home in Houston, Bean remembers standing on the Moon, turning his back on the Earth and Sun, and looking out at sky the same "patent leather black" as the shoes he once wore to Sunday school.

Bean had an eye for colour and since 1981 has worked as a full-time artist, painting his lunar experiences and those of his fellow astronauts. Aged 77, he rises at five each morning, eats, exercises and then settles down to paint. He doesn't often look out of the window at the beautiful trees and landscape. His mind is simultaneously 240,000 miles away and hovering a few inches from the canvas in front of him. The Moon preoccupies him. Not a day goes by when he doesn't think of it.

After walking there, is the rest of one's life an inevitable anticlimax? Bean says this may have been true for some of the astronauts, and cites Buzz Aldrin, who has struggled with alcoholism and depression, but not for him. He's always tried to keep looking forward. He does believe, however, that the high rate of marriage breakdowns among Apollo astronauts may be explained within the space programme.

"You begin to want things to be as perfect as they had to be to be successful going to the Moon," he says. "The spacecraft had to be perfect, the team had to work together, everyone had to set their ego aside. So you believe that a marriage can be perfect, but it can't. The blame goes to us, the men. The wives understood that relationships are a lot harder to perfect than hardware."

On their return, a number of the astronauts rebooted their lives. Ed Mitchell of Apollo 14 founded an institute to explore psychic and paranormal phenomena. Jim Irwin of Apollo 15 and Charlie Duke of Apollo 16 found God.

"Going to the Moon doesn't change you so much as it reveals you," says Bean. "It lets you be the person you are. You've achieved a goal you dreamed of and therefore you can start to behave more like you really are. On the way back from the Moon I was able to say to Pete and Dick, 'If we get back alive from this thing, I'm going to live my life like I've always wanted to live it.'"

For Bean this meant greater openness about his interest in art. He believes being seen as artistic held him back for years in the space programme; the pilots who did well were into hunting and fishing, hobbies approved by Deke Slayton, the man who chose the crews. When Pete Conrad, the commander of Apollo 11, died in 1999, Bean was astonished to learn from his widow that he too had painted. Conrad, in all the years they had been close, never mentioned it. You didn't talk about that sort of thing if you wanted to go to the Moon.

Bean feels very close to the other surviving Apollo astronauts, all of whom are in their seventies. They don't all get on or mingle socially, but there is a profound connection between them. A family of sorts. Of the dozen who walked on the Moon, only nine remain, and Bean is keenly aware that one day there will be no one left.

"That's one of the reasons why I do these paintings," he says. "I could have a stroke and die today but I hope I don't because I've still got a lot of stories to tell."

Bean and his fellow Moon-walkers are like the surviving Beatles. They carry the legacy, the fire, for the men who have died and for everyone who was touched and inspired by what they did. Arguably, the American and Soviet space programmes had an impact beyond even their fantastic scientific achievements – they ignited wonder and passion in the hearts of millions.

Take John Bonsor – aged six in 1957 when Sputnik 1 launched and 18 when Apollo 11 landed on the Moon. Growing up in Edinburgh, he was gripped by the space race, his mind broadened; it awakened in him an interest in science, politics and the environment.

He began building his own rockets, keen to emulate what Wernher von Braun was doing for NASA. Bonsor read about rocket technology in the children's section of his local library, and was granted permission to enter the adult section early. "When I was ten or 11 I started making my own rocket fuel and filling metal pipes with rather doubtful mixtures," he laughs. "There were an awful lot of explosions." He refers to this period as his "misfired youth".

Now 58, Bonsor lives in a flat near Beith, Ayrshire, and continues to dedicate his life to flight. He is a full-time rocketeer – running workshops in schools and organising the annual International Rocket Week at Fairlie Moor near Largs. He lives "hand-to-mouth", but it's hard to imagine him doing anything else. His front room is packed with books and magazines about rocketry and space flight. There's a lunar map behind the desk and, next to his armchair, instead of a side table, is the nose cone from a guided missile. A small black and white television looks roughly contemporaneous with Apollo 11.

What should be a bedroom, Bonsor uses as a "rocket room", with a single mattress lying in one corner. This is where he makes his rockets out of balsa wood, cardboard, string, paperclips and those thick tubes from around which supermarket bags are dispensed. The rocket fuel and motors, he buys. Despite the somewhat ramshackle circumstances of their creation, his rockets look wildly impressive. There are 50 or so of various sizes in the small room and they can fly up to 5,500 feet. One small, stumpy rocket is made from the container of a Glenfiddich miniature. Another lies across two cans of Scotch broth.

Amateur rocketry has been going on in Scotland since at least 1920. One group, The Paisley Rocketeers, began in 1936 and was wound up in 2005 following the death of founder member John Stewart. Bonsor inherited from Stewart a huge amount of material relating to the Rocketeers as well as the first rocket he ever flew. Cradling this small, silvery, fragile, finned diamond, he says it's possible to draw a direct line between it and the Saturn-V rocket which powered Apollo 11 to the Moon. Both run along the same principles and both were the product of human enthusiasm for firing things high into the air. As if to emphasise the connection, this year's International Rocket Week, 24-31 August, will have an Apollo 11 theme. Bonsor is considering building a working model of the Eagle.

He has an almost religious devotion to rockets. "I feel that every time a rocket goes up, a little bit of me goes on with it." When his time comes, he would like his ashes to be scattered by rocket, perhaps even, in time, on the surface of the Moon.

Who knows whether he will ever get his wish? There are many extraordinary things about the Apollo missions, but perhaps the most extraordinary is this: at present, almost 40 years after we first went there, humans are unable to go to the Moon. As a result of NASA's resources being poured into the space shuttle and space stations, no current rocket has that capability. The Moon is as remote to us now as it was to the ancient people who built Callanish.

Like the other Apollo astronauts, Alan Bean did not expect his lunar mission to be one of the very few ever made. He thought that by now there would be people living on the moon and that we would have moved on to Mars. And there's a certain sadness that the incredible, ineffable thing he experienced has not been felt by more people.

"But that's not the way culture works," he says. "There were 128 years between the time that Columbus discovered America and the pilgrims showed up. The world doesn't run in the most efficient and logical way. The world just runs along as it does."

Wane's world: Ten astonishing moon facts

• If you drove through space in a car travelling at 70mph it would take 135 days to reach the Moon.

• Discontinued names for features on the Moon include the Marsh of Mists, Land of Cheerfulness and Peninsula of Insanities.

• 26 July will be the 400th anniversary of the first drawing of the Moon made using a telescope. English astronomer Thomas Harriot beat Galileo by four months.

• Buzz Aldrin's mother's maiden name was Moon.

• Pete Conrad, commander of Apollo 12, died in a motorcycle accident in Ojai, California. Ojai is the Native American word for Moon.

• The launch of Apollo 12 was attended by Frank Sinatra, singer of 'Fly Me To The Moon'.

• Dr Wernher von Braun, who developed the Saturn-V rocket for the US, had previously created the V-2 missile for Nazi Germany.

• "Waxing gibbous" is the stage between a full Moon and half Moon. It is also the name of the new album by Scottish arch-miserabilist Malcolm Middleton.

The power of Apollo 11 for the first two and a half minutes from launch was equivalent to the entire generating capacity of the United Kingdom.

• In 1964, Archie Roy, now Emeritus Professor of Astronomy at Glasgow University, placed a bet that an American would be on the Moon by 1971. He won "half the cost of a semi-detached house in Kelvindale".

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