To mark the 50th anniversary of the first Moon landing on 20 July 1969 for Morning Ireland, I compiled a series of reports looking at what why space exploration seemingly stalled after the Apollo missions, the significance of the next phase of space travel, and Ireland's links to both the Moon and space.

My research took me to various academic institutions to speak with experts in the area of space travel, as well as to Birr Castle and Science Centre in Co Offaly where I discovered the unique links the estate has with space.

Speaking ahead of the 50th anniversary of the 1969 lunar landing, the second man to set foot on the Moon – Buzz Aldrin – expressed the frustration many in the space community share with regard to the lack of further cosmic exploration since: "We landed, explored, got back up again, rendezvoused, came back.
"That's 50 years of non-progress. I think we all ought to be a little ashamed that we can’t do better than that."
So, why have things moved so slowly since?

This is one of the questions I asked Kevin Nolan, a physics lecturer at Technology University of Dublin, Tallaght.
He points out that the Americans were pumping so much money into the space programme in the 1950s and 1960s that it simply wasn’t sustainable in the long-term.

"Each Apollo mission cost more than Ireland’s GDP at that time ... the total mission was 3%-4% of the US budget," Mr Nolan says, adding that "asking the US public to sustain that for decades wasn't on".

As a result he says we have had to wait until the technology to go back to the Moon and beyond was cheaper and smarter, and that is why there is renewed interest now in the space programme.

If we do make it back to the Moon, experts suggest – beyond exploiting any lunar resources – one of the main reasons we will do this is to use it as a base for further exploration to Mars.

There is much debate within the scientific community as to when we might end up sending a manned missions to Mars.

Entrepreneur Elon Musk is hoping to achieve that goal within the next decade through his Space X company, but closer to home there is less optimism.

Elon Musk

Brian McBreen is retired from the School of Physics in University College Dublin where his main areas of research were experimental physics and astrophysics.

He says getting to Mars will be an enormously complex and costly challenge and he does not think anyone will walk on Mars this century.

"I think it's at least a hundred years away," he believes.

"With the current rockets you’re nine months in space, you’re exposed to all the radiation that’s out here, chances are you’re half dead by the time you get there and there wouldn’t really be  much point in bringing you back."

Mr McBreen adds that unless there are major developments in the type of rockets we plan on using for manned missions to Mars "there is a huge radiation hazard".

Commercial sector beginning to cause a revolution in space

The sheer cost of getting to Mars is also a barrier as far as Mr McBreen is concerned, and he believes this is where the private or commercial sector could play a big role.

"For people going into space, I think that should be handled by the private sector and ... I think the private sector can afford to take more risks than governments can take.

"All of this so-called space tourism – that should be taken over by the private sector."

Mr Nolan is also an advocate of private companies becoming more involved in space exploration.

"Whether you love or hate Space X. They are definitely pushing the envelope in terms of reusability of rockets and cheaper rockets," he believes.

"Even Elon Musk’s huge ambitious star ship rocket is making companies like Boeing and Lockheed Martin think smarter and cheaper about the way they do it."

Mr Nolan acknowledges it will always be expensive to explore space and as a result the likes of NASA and ESA are "absolutely hell-bent on bringing in as many of the private sector companies as they can to spur innovation and competition and lower prices.

"Without necessarily lowering the quality, as we are still talking about high-risk ventures here that have to be done to a very high standard," he adds.

"The commercial sector is beginning to cause a revolution in space, certainly in low-Earth orbit and ever increasingly towards the Moon and maybe eventually Mars."

Birr's special association with the Moon

On my travels I visited Birr Castle Gardens and Science Centre in Co Offaly.

The 120-acre site is not only a beautiful country estate, but it has a strong pedigree when it comes to space exploration.

Birr Castle has been the home of the Earls of Rosse since the 1600s and the earls have been busy over the centuries making their cosmic mark through various scientific endeavours.

The Fourth Earl of Rosse lived in the 1800s and he always had a fascination with the Moon, even managing to create the first ever device capable of measuring the temperature of the lunar surface.

Now, it was the mid 1800s when he achieved this feat and without actually landing on the Moon there was no way to verify the accuracy of the Earl’s lunar heat device.

The heat device at Birr Castle Gardens and Science Centre in Co Offaly

His invention was viewed with a large degree of scepticism within the scientific community at the time.

But, fast forward to 20 July 1969 when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin land on the Moon, at which point it was confirmed that the Earl of Rosse’s invention was accurately determining the temperature of the lunar surface all along.

NASA acknowledged this, awarding the family a certificate to confirm the validity of the heat device; while Neil Armstrong actually sent a letter to the Rosse family thanking them for their contribution to science.

Letter from Neil Armstrong to Rosse family

Both items are on display for the public to view in the Science Centre at Birr Castle, along with many of the other scientific inventions from the family.

The 'big' telescope

Another perhaps little-known claim to scientific claim is that Birr Castle was home to the world’s largest telescope for around 70 years from 1840 into the beginning of the 20th century.
The telescope was built by the Third Earl of Rosse.

Nicknamed ‘the big telescope’ it is still a huge telescope by modern standards. It sits on the grounds of the estate at Birr Castle and it’s so big that when many people see it, they mistake it for a building - some even think it’s the castle.

It has got a six-foot mirror and is wide enough for a person to fit into the tube part of the telescope.

While the Third Earl of Rosse designed the device, his wife designed the walls for the structure housing the telescope.

One of first things observed with the gigantic telescope was a nebula, which was previously observed by other telescopes, but it could be seen more clearly with the bigger telescope.

From the past to the present with ILOFAR

Birr also has significant modern links to science and technology.

The gardens of Birr Castle estate are home to a huge radio telescope array called ILOFAR (an acronym which stands for 'Irish low frequency array').

It is part of an international network of 12 low frequency radio telescopes, which are located all across Europe.

They cannot be close to big cities as there is generally too much radio interference, meaning the tranquil, pure surroundings of Birr Gardens are the perfect location for the new radio telescope.

The ILOFAR telescope is used in a very different way to the old "big" telescope as there is no visual element to it – rather it uses radio waves to explore the cosmos.

This modern exploration project being based in Birr Castle is apt recognition for the scientific achievements undertaken there and a more-than-appropriate continuation of its space legacy.

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