Written by Hannah John

On 21 July 2019 the world was once again gripped by space fever. Fifty years on from the moon landings, the sight of Neil Armstrong and his crew making those first giant leaps is still enough to leave us awe-struck.

But the anniversary is slightly bittersweet. As we reminisce, we are reminded once again of the naivety and optimism of that period. It was not, as many had thought, the dawn of the age of space travel, but instead the end of an era. Despite our modern technology being infinitely more advanced than it was in 1969, we are currently unable to send manned missions to the moon. And, even if we could, many agree that the motivation to do so is no longer there.

In the decade that followed the moon landings, a switch was flicked in the public psyche. Suddenly, exploration was out, and conservation was in.

So why this sudden change of heart?

A panel of experts consisting of Marina Benjamin, Robert Poole, Martin Parker and Vera Assis Fernandes sought to answer this question among others at this year’s British Science Festival.

Writer Marina Benjamin discussed the allure space held over the general public in the years leading up to the Apollo missions. Many harboured a conviction that this was our evolutionary destiny. Man would set foot on the moon the same way that fish had walked out of the sea. Space, and all the paraphernalia associated with it was an all-consuming cultural obsession, a full-time public preoccupation. This widespread fascination with the futuristic was reflected (rather unsubtly) in every conceivable industry, from fashion and art to architecture and interior design.

The fixation was fuelled by an abundance of science fiction, with Doctor Who and 2001: A Space Odyssey capturing the nation’s imagination. The fictitious element of these shows and films was suddenly up for discussion. After all, if man could walk on the moon, surely anything was possible?

The turning point came, Robert Pool – Professor of History at Lancaster University suggested, when the fantasy started to become a reality.

William Anders, an astronaut aboard Apollo 8 was reported to say: "I was immediately almost overcome by the thought that we came all this way to the moon, and yet the most significant thing we're seeing is our own home planet, the Earth."

For the human eye to see Earth (quite literally) in perspective for the first time must have been an overwhelming experience. When the first images of ‘Earth Rise’ and later ‘Blue Marble’ were beamed back to Earth, they seemed to cause a shift in public consciousness. From the barren and dusty surface of the moon, the Earth glowed with colour and life. Humankind was suddenly acutely aware of just how cosmically small and uniquely beautiful our planet is. Suspended in the inhospitable vacuum of space, our thin, fragile atmosphere resembled the membrane of a living cell.

We had made the seemingly obvious discovery, summarised by scientist and environmentalist James Lovelock, that “simply, the Earth is alive.”

With this revelation came a renewed sense of responsibility. Foundations such as Friends of the Earth (1969) were created and the first Earth Summit (1972) was held. In short, it sparked the beginnings of the early environmental movement. Of course, we are only just discovering today the full horrific extent to which we have been rapidly poisoning our planet. But these events marked the beginning of a global awareness that our resources are limited and that exploiting them may have catastrophic repercussions.

Today, our visions of the future have been somewhat curtailed, argued Martin Parker - Professor of Organisational Studies at the University of Bristol. Rather than focusing on intergalactic conquest, leading corporations sell us a future where the pinnacle of achievement is the ability to watch cat videos in super HD. Parker concluded bleakly that, "It is almost as if we’ve given up on the future."

Nevertheless, moon exploration has not been rendered completely inane, added geologist Vera Fernandes. Samples taken from the moon by robots still play a vital part in helping us understand our own planet. The moon was originally part of the Earth, after all. 

So, we may not be where we thought we’d be half a century ago in terms of space colonisation, but that’s not to say the Apollo missions were in vain. Through the photos they took and the unique perspectives they acquired, the astronauts sent back the most important conservational message the Earth could ever hear. One that is essential to receive loud and clear.