In 1969, when Neil Armstrong uttered the immortal phrase “One small step for [a] man – one giant leap for mankind”, many of the millions of people watching the live TV coverage of the first moon landing felt that space exploration had come of age.
However, the promise of the US Apollo programme, of future bases on the moon and extended human spaceflight throughout the solar system failed to materialise as political and public interest waned.
Half a century after that first historic lunar landing, US president Donald Trump has called on NASA to repeat the feat and return astronauts back to the moon.
Most space experts doubt that the ambitious 2024 deadline set by Trump will be achieved. But most also agree that sooner rather than later, NASA - and its European counterpart, ESA (the European Space Agency) - will be sending astronauts back to the moon.
Unlike the Cold War-driven ‘Space Race’ between the US and the then USSR, any future NASA-led lunar programme is likely to be a much more collaborative affair, with the EU, Canada and Japan partnering with the US to construct a lunar orbiting space station.
The “Gateway” space station is, according to the ESA’s David Parker, “good news for Europe”.
Talking to the UK’s Guardian newspaper recently, Parker said the ESA has already teamed up with Nasa on Gateway’s construction, providing propulsion units for the Orion spacecraft that will be used to transport personnel to and from the orbiting lunar outpost.
“We should therefore be in a strong position to have a European astronaut taken to the moon.”
Parker, director of human and robotic exploration for the ESA also believes “We are getting ready, together, to send humans further into the Solar System than ever before.”
“The Lunar Gateway is the next big step in human exploration and we are working to make Europe a part of it.”
“We will extend the presence of humans one thousand times farther into space compared to today’s International Space Station.”
“We need to bring people together in a spirit of cooperation, and highlight the fact that we’re all on basically the same mission together” Apollo 15 Command Module Pilot Al Worden
Apollo astronaut Al Worden also believes that the next phase of space exploration - setting up a lunar base for an eventual manned mission to Mars - will be more collaborative.
The Apollo 15 Command Module Pilot said, “The spirit of exploration is not just an American spirit. It is a human spirit.”
“I happen to believe that in a cooperative arena, with all the people in the world, we’re not going to be able to get to Mars as a single country.”
“I think it’s going to take the cooperation of everybody. We are going to go back to the moon and find out what the moon is all about.”
Worden, alongside fellow Apollo astronauts Charlie Duke and Walt Cunningham were the star turns at this year’s Paris Air Show as part of the USA Partnership Pavilion and the Apollo 50 programme produced by Kallman Worldwide.
The Apollo 50 programme was developed to both celebrate the achievements of the astronauts, engineers, scientists and technicians that helped change history and as an opportunity to inspire a global conversation about future space exploration.
Worden, who spent three days orbiting the moon alone conducting a range of scientific experiments mapping the lunar surface, added, “The next step is going to be Mars, and we’re going to find out whatever Mars has to tell us about who we are, where we are, and what it’s all about.”
“I see the Mars project as being similar to the Apollo project, in that the goal is going to be the most important thing.”
“The Lunar Gateway is the next big step in human exploration and we are working to make Europe a part of it. We will extend the presence of humans one thousand times farther into space compared to today’s International Space Station” David Parker, director of human and robotic exploration, ESA
“It’s going to allay all the fears that we have of other countries and other people trying to do things if we do it cooperatively. I think that’s going to be a very big thing.”
The spin-off technology developed during the Apollo programme helped boost US commercial successes.
“I think other countries have picked up on that technology since, and we’re all kind of in a competitive mode these days with that kind of technology,” says Worden, adding, “and that’s why it is so important that we operate cooperatively with other countries and other overseas manufacturing facilities.”
“Not many people know that the very first experiment conducted on the surface of the Moon by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin - a solar wind experiment - was actually developed in Europe, in Switzerland.”
“We need to bring people together in a spirit of cooperation and highlight the fact that we’re all on basically the same mission together. We need to work together to see that mission is accomplished.”
Reflecting on the historic first moon landing, Romanian MEP Marian Marinescu, a vice-chair of the European Parliament’s Sky and Space intergroup says he vividly remembers events unfolding.
“That night I was supposed to be studying for a college test the next day. I was also watching the live broadcast on TV and was looking through the window at the moon and at the TV watching Neil Armstrong take his first steps on the moon. I remember clearly the emotion I felt.”
Italian MEP Massimiliano Salini hopes this month’s moon landing anniversary will also help to sprinkle some stardust on the EU’s new European Space Programme, which aims to merge the current Galileo, EGNOS and Copernicus programmes and the Space Situational Awareness (SSA) Programme and Europe’s Governmental Satellite Communications (GOVSATCOM) project into a single framework.
“A fully integrated space programme will increase effectiveness and cost efficiency. As Rapporteur I can say that with the new European Space programme there will be even more space in Europe and more EU in space.”