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The moment when, 50 years ago, Neil Armstrong planted his foot on the surface of the Moon inspired awe, pride and wonder around the world. This newspaper argued that “man, from this day on, can go wheresoever in the universe his mind wills and his ingenuity contrives…to the planets, sooner rather than later, man is now certain to go.” But no. The Moon landing was an aberration, a goal achieved not as an end in itself but as a means of signalling America’s extraordinary capabilities. That point, once made, required no remaking. Only 571 people have been into orbit; and since 1972 no one has ventured much farther into space than Des Moines is from Chicago.
The next 50 years will look very different (see Science section). Falling costs, new technologies, Chinese and Indian ambitions, and a new generation of entrepreneurs promise a bold era of space development. It will almost certainly involve tourism for the rich and better communications networks for all; in the long run it might involve mineral exploitation and even mass transportation. Space will become ever more like an extension of Earth—an arena for firms and private individuals, not just governments. But for this promise to be fulfilled the world needs to create a system of laws to govern the heavens—both in peacetime and, should it come to that, in war.