Editorial

Rockets and politics: NASA goes gold.

 It's the Apollo 16 mission to the Descartes region of the Moon, in which Young and fellow astronaut Charles Duke made three excursions in a 71 hour visit. They covered 26km in their Lunar Roving Vehicle, which is parked in front of the Lunar Module. In the background is Stone Mountain.

Even today, the Moon landings stand as an extraordinary achievement - certainly the most famous in the 50 years of NASA.

NASA has been controversial since its inception, and there have always been cynics to criticise. On the live 1965 album 'That was the year that was', the satirical songwriter (and mathematician) Tom Lehrer asked: "What is it that put America in the forefront of the nuclear nations? And what is it that will make it possible to spend $20bn of your money to put some clown on the Moon? Well, it was good old American know-how, that's what. As provided by good old Americans…like Dr Wernher von Braun."

Von Braun had headed Nazi Germany's rocket programme, yet went to the US after the war, where he later became a naturalised citizen - and a central player in NASA's entry into the space race.

A war criminal to some, a great scientist and engineer to others, there is probably no other figure of 20th century science and engineering that divides opinion so sharply. I asked Piers Bizony, our space correspondent, what he made of him: "Von Braun is a hard man to fathom. He stopped at nothing - including working for the Nazis - in pursuit of his obsessive dream: to build rockets for space flight. I've spent years trying to figure him out, with little success. Perhaps the younger von Braun sold his soul too hastily, while the older man gained some wisdom." Email your thoughts to the Feedback address (engtechletters@theiet.org) to let us know what you think or take our online poll at http://kn.theiet.org/magazine/issues/0813/index.cfm.

Elsewhere in this issue, Bizony explains how NASA wants to return to the scene of its greatest triumph. But he starts by explaining there were grander ideas behind the founding of NASA: it was meant to stimulate education, industry and even management.

NASA has always been keen to publicise its technology spin-offs. These range from novelties like the pen that will write upside down (just like a pencil!) to life-saving technologies like digital imaging breast biopsies. But even these aren't the most important spin-offs, argued NASA administrator Mike Griffin last year: "It's not about spin-offs like Teflon and Velcro as the public is so often told - and which in fact did not come from the space programme. And it's not about spin-offs in the form of better heart monitors or cheaper prices for liquid oxygen for hospitals. Yes, you get those things and many more and they are real benefits." It's about precision, he argued, about working to "a higher level of precision than human beings had to do before the space industry came along." It's just the latest justification in a long line for the most famous government agency in the world. But maybe our cover image is the best argument for NASA.

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