Neil Armstrong definitely had symbolic meaning until the end. The first man to step foot on the moon, 43 years ago, decided to leave Earth at the same moment as when the Curiosity robot began to survey the ground on Mars.
These two exploits summarize space adventure and the dream, which is almost as old as humanity, to explore the universe in order to better understand it. The first one: An alien earthling who symbolized the supremacy of America in the scientific, technological and strategic “war” against the USSR. The second: A machine joins together research teams from many countries in the name of science. Yesterday, conquest; today, exploration.
Beyond the dream, this adventure was firstly war — or at least, geostrategic. The Nazis’ V2 missiles were designed to destroy London. All the civilian spatial technologies are descendants of this power obsession.
When, less than 20 years later, the beep-beep of Sputnik rang out and the Russian Yuri Gagarin landed after orbiting Earth, the Soviet model demonstrated its ambition and technological advance. The race to the moon launched by John Fitzgerald Kennedy in 1961 had no other objective than to regain honor and wear out the Russians in this limitless race.
There you go, why the conquest of the moon was short-lived, or nearly: In total, only 12 men, all American, have set foot on its soil between 1969 and 1972. The argument was a result of American supremacy, furthermore dedicated several years later to the “Star Wars” project.
Next, space obeyed Realpolitik: At the time of Perestroika, Americans and Russians chose to cooperate in order to share the huge cost of these programs. This became the international space station. Europe, flattered to be admitted into this very exclusive club, will agree to participate in the financing of this ruinous laboratory, in order to obtain a back seat. Some complain that the Old Continent has burdened the development of useful space projects, such as Earth observation, telecommunications or geolocalization.
The match between manned flight and robotic exploration of the solar system remains current: The machine’s supporters assure that it is more apt to glean scientific data; champions of man in space assure that man is better equipped to adapt to the unknown.
However, today, the robot has the advantage. After putting the costly and dangerous shuttles into retirement, the United States does not even have its own means to send astronauts into space. It must pay for a place in the Russian Soyuz, and Barack Obama has cancelled the scheduled return to the moon. A single actor seems capable of taking over: China, in its turn, decided to marry the dream and the power.