From The Last Man on the Moon to reusable rockets, inflatable habitats and interstellar nanocraft - 44 years after humans left the Moon, TIM ROBINSON asks whether we are now on the cusp of a new era in spaceflight.

Gene Cernan on the Moon in 1972. (NASA)

‘Why didn’t we go back?’. That is the fundamental question raised by the recently released (in the UK) documentary The Last Man on the Moon which looks at the achievements of Apollo through Apollo 17 Commander Gene Cernan. An inspiring and often funny film – it is also extremely poignant – with Cernan visiting the ghostly giant infrastructure of America’s 60’s human spaceflight programme, while Virgiin Galactic expects to restart flight tests this year.

A new hope

Space X's Falcon 9 successful vertical landing was a historic moment for reusable space vehicles. (SpaceX).

Yet today there is fresh hope – as RAeS President Martin Broadhurst says in next month’s Message in AEROSPACE magazine “Space exploration is moving ahead more quickly than at any time since the 1960s.” New commercial spaceflight pioneers are pushing ahead to break the chains of gravity. The recent SpaceX vertical landing of its first stage Falcon 9 on a barge has been described (perhaps too breathlessly) as an ‘Apollo landing’ moment for this generation of millennials. Hyperbole it may be but no one can deny the awesome potential of a video of a rocket, landing from space, science fiction like, to inspire future engineers, scientists and astronauts.

This news has been followed by Bigelow Aerospace announcing plans to put an expandable habitat into orbit in 2020 as the first commercial LEO outpost. SpaceX rival, Blue Origin, meanwhile, is making strides with its suborbital Blue Shephard rocket and is working on bigger, more powerful engines. It is not just been 'New Space' either - NASA's New Horizon's probe visiting Pluto, Europe's Rosetta probe landing on a comet and the first British ESA astronaut on the ISS have all gripped public and scientists alike. A new generation of human-rated vehicles (Dragon, CST-100, Orion) and launchers (SLS) also wait in the wings.

Private enterprise in the cosmos

Breakthrough Starshot is a $100m initiative to send solar-sail 'nanocraft' to the nearest star. (Breakthrough Starshot) 

Last week also saw the announcement of, perhaps, the ultimate space mission – with a privately funded interstellar mission to send nano-solar sail probes to our nearest neighbour Alpha Centauri in just 20 years at 20% of the speed of light. For those that have previously assumed that even the closest star is too far away for a single human lifetime to be long enough to send out a spacecraft and receive data back - this is an awe-inspiring idea.

This project and plans to mine asteroids, establish a Moon Village or colonise Mars may seem impossibly ambitious and optimistic, given the regular drumbeat of depressing news that fills the media. However, it is in dreaming big that inspires people to push further and strive harder. As retired NASA Flight Director Gene Kranz notes in 'Last Man' when John F Kennedy gave his 'We choose to go to the Moon' speech at Rice University in 1962, "We had a total of 20 minutes manned spaceflight experience." Yet seven years later, Neil Armstrong walked on the Lunar surface.

Reach for the stars

Gene Cernan today. (Last Man on the Moon/M. Craig)

Not all of these 'New Space' ventures, concepts and schemes will survive, and it will be survival of the fittest. There will be tragedies and coffins. But some 44 years after the last footprints were left on the Moon, nothing now is starting to seem out of reach. Are we now about to enter a new golden age of spaceflight and exploration? As Cernan reflects at the end of Last Man on the Moon, sitting on his ranch in Texas: “I went to the Moon, what can’t you do?”


18 April 2016