It's fifty years since the first of some 500 humans made that magical journey of just 100km to get into space; it's not quite 40 years since the last of just 27 men ventured away from mother Earth to go to the Moon and back. We talk about who will be the first to set foot on Mars, but that still seems an eternity away. "The trouble with eternity," as Woody Allen once said, "is it drags towards the end."
At least we now have a fully paid-up British astronaut, Major Tim Peake, in training with the European Space Agency (ESA). It was embarrassing having to take a French astronaut to inspire kids in an inner-city British school a few years ago.
Of course, the thing that drove men to the Moon was the Cold War and military supremacy. You could be forgiven for thinking that, with spending cuts everywhere, now is not the right time for a new space race. But there is going to be one. In fact, it has already started and this time it is economics that will drive space exploration.
As I write this, the latest of several Chinese delegations is visiting the Open University to pick British brains on the subject of how to build spacecraft and the instruments they carry. Each one I have met has been made up of dynamic young people. They are excited because they know they are going places. They remind me of when I was a new PhD graduate and was offered the chance to work on the Apollo programme as my first proper job (although I've never called it a job). Somebody else had already turned it down on the grounds that he could not see it as a long-term career. He was only paraphrasing the 17th-century Duchess of Newcastle, who said, when the first scientific book predicting space travel was written: "It'll never catch on - there are no taverns on the way."
But it did, and space-sector businesses turn over about pound;7 billion a year in the UK alone. My friends at EADS Astrium, Britain's biggest industry player, tell me they can't find enough engineers and technologists to win a bigger share of the pound;400 billion global market. But there are plenty of starry-eyed young Colin Pillingers in the Far East who will seize that opportunity. I am told that if you ask a class of young Indians if they want to be scientists, 30 per cent of the hands will go up. You would be lucky to get three here. That is why I believe the next person to stand on the moon will be from somewhere east of Suez.
We cannot afford not to be in this game. It cost space agency Nasa a major chunk of the American GDP for Neil Armstrong to take his "one small step for a man" ahead of a Russian, but it is often said that this produced a sevenfold return on the money in terms of new technology.
I long ago proved the sceptics wrong with a 40-plus-year career that has taken in the moon, meteorites, a mission to Mars, Beagle 2, an asteroid named after me, and an instrument flying to land on a comet in 2014. Despite all this, I am still as enthusiastic as ever about what is just over the horizon, or in my case above the atmosphere. I am currently working for the ESA's Directorate of Human Spaceflight to design a package of equipment to land at the lunar south pole no later than 2018.
"Why do you want to go to the Moon again?" you may ask. Well, for a start, if you draw a line around the locations visited by the Apollo astronauts, it would encompass less than 3 per cent of our satellite's surface. None of it is anywhere near the south pole, the place where we should find water as a resource. We would not need to carry it all the way from Earth at vast expense.
Before I explain, I should say that water preoccupies space researchers. They seek it everywhere in the hope that it will lead them to extraterrestrial life to show we are not alone in the universe. Many of the scientists, including me, who studied the first returned lunar samples anticipated finding some sedimentary rocks, fossils or more likely chemical evidence of micro-organisms that lived in water. Ever since the first astronomical telescopes were turned towards the Moon, the giant basins had been called Mare because they were believed to be dried-up seas. We were to be disappointed; they were solidified pools of lava.
But that is not the success story. In the 1970s I helped to show there is a process that makes water on the Moon. The Sun bathes the lunar soil in a stream of energetic hydrogen ions. These react with the minerals present to make tiny amounts of water. During the lunar day the high temperature, 1400C, cooks some out of the rock; it condenses down on the cold surface at night when the temperature drops to -1500C. An instrument taken to the Moon by Apollo 17 detected water evaporating like dew at dawn.
This process has been going on throughout the Moon's 4.5 billion-year history and the theory is that water has frozen out at the lunar poles, where there are places the Sun never shines and the temperature is always below -2400C. If comets produced some of the impact craters, which abound on the Moon, they too could have contributed to the accumulation of water over time in the cold regions.
If it can be proved that there is water there, the lunar south pole is the ideal location to set up a permanent human base (with a British astronaut, of course, to motivate our kids and show them just how far science could take them). In addition to the permanently cold areas, there are places where the Sun does not drop below the horizon, making it possible to produce electricity continuously from photovoltaic effects. The power could be used to break water down into hydrogen and oxygen by electrolysis for fuel to carry instruments and humans into the unknown, Mars and beyond. We would not have to bring all the fuel we need for journeys further afield from Earth. Lifting one litre into orbit needs many more litres to be burnt on the way - rockets are glorified petrol tanks.
I recently asked a man erecting some scaffolding how he was doing during the recession. He replied: "Got plenty of work on - people putting solar panels on their roofs thanks to the Government's renewable energy incentive scheme." I told him he should be grateful for spin-off from the space programme and how the first patented solar cells were used to power America's Vanguard spacecraft, launched in 1958 - another of those things people don't remember when they accuse us of launching suitcases full of money wastefully into space.
Colin Pillinger is professor of planetary science at the Open University.
TOP SPACE EXPLORATION RESOURCES
An enormous collection of highly rated space-related videos. Shared by footagevault
Space Race explained
Vix_white has created a great way to explain the Space Race to primary pupils
Poetry on the Moon
This resource from Mark Cowan is suitable for the whole school. A powerful and imaginative poem on the Moon landings: "How did it feel, Neil?"
Put debate into orbit
Get your students talking. This debate from institute of ideas begins with the motion that "man, not machines, should explore space"
KS5 and post-16
Lives of the stars
Discover Physics_teacher's resource on the evolution of stars - and find out what happens at each stage in their lives
All resources and links can be found at www.tes.co.ukresources003
Original print headline: Why we need to go back to the Moon