That we last visited the Moon in 1972 and have never since returned is usually regarded as both a disappointment and a surprise. Certainly, people at the time assumed that once Apollo had reached the Moon mankind was there to stay – just as once Columbus reached the Americas, many others followed. But something I read today has made me question that.
Do you know what happened on this day, fifty-two years ago? No? Then I guess unlike me you didn’t get an “On This Day” desk calendar from your sister-in-law for Christmas, because I did, and hence I do know what happened on this day, fifty-two years ago.
On January 4th 1958, a party led by Sir Edmund Hillary (of Everest fame) reached the South Pole after an overland journey. There were actually people waiting for them; the US Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station had been established by air over the previous two years. But when a US Navy party led by Admiral George J. Dufek had landed at the Pole in a C-47 Skytrain aircraft on 31st October 1956, they were the first people to stand at the Pole since Scott’s party, in 1912, forty-four years previously.
Like Kennedy and Krushchev, Amundsen and Scott had raced for the honour of being first to a destination, only to find out that honour aside, there was no reason to go there. Given that it took us forty-four years to return to the South Pole, is it that much of a surprise that our return to the far-harder-to-reach Moon is at thirty-seven years and counting?