I was born 14 years after the Apollo 11 moon landing, and I’ve never quite gotten over it. I mean, arguably the greatest technical achievement ever, and I missed it by a measly decade and a half. It’s not fair.
July 20 marks the 45th anniversary of Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the moon. With just a few muscle movements that most of us take for granted, Armstrong proved that humans could visit other worlds. For people of my generation and younger, we’ve never lived in a world where humans haven’t walked on the moon. It’s something we take for granted. Of course we can get to the moon and back. YAWN. But it took the most brilliant minds and a lot of money (although perhaps not as much as you’d think) to get us to the moon and back. It’s astounding to think about, even today.
Maybe, though, I shouldn’t be too bummed out about missing the first moon landing. We are now, arguably, living in a much more exciting time. The moon is small potatoes. We have our eyes on a bigger goal now in the form of a tiny pink dot in the night sky.
The United States has actually been studying Mars with robots since before Apollo 11. Mariner 4 flew by Mars way back in 1965 and really gave us our first glimpse of the surface of another planet. Since then, we’ve sent robot after robot to study the Marian atmosphere and surface. When you think about it, we really should be farther along on our journey to the Red Planet by now.
But you can’t change the past, so the important thing now is that we have a plan. It may seem desperately slow for people like me, but come on. We’re talking a 140 million mile journey, and that’s just one way. Preparing for that takes time.
Good thing, then, that we’ve already started. NASA’s Human Path to Mars has three general phases, called “Earth Reliant,” “Proving Ground,” and “Mars Ready.”
We’re in the “Earth Reliant” phase right now. Astronauts are doing experiments in the International Space Station (ISS). They are testing out equipment we’ll need for deep space communications and learning more about the effects of microgravity on the human body.
The second phase, “Proving Ground,” is more ambitious and necessitates a replacement for the Space Shuttle. That replacement, known as Orion, and the new Space Launch System (SLS) will boost astronauts beyond low Earth orbit where the ISS sits. We’ll need to go farther out than we’ve gone in a long time because the plan is to send a robot out into deep space to redirect an asteroid so it orbits the moon. We’re going to give our moon a moon, you guys! And Orion is going to carry astronauts there to study it! This is scheduled to go down in the 2020s.
Since the asteroid is going to orbit the moon, I guess we are going back to Earth’s natural satellite in a sense. But this time astronauts will study something brought in from outside. The idea is to bring samples back to Earth, which will be super cool. Usually if we want to get our hands on a space rock we have to wait for one to crash into us. So not only is the science that comes out of that going to be completely awesome, but just the act of making it to the captured asteroid will test out some new systems, like the Solar Electric Propulsion which will send cargo when we finally send humans to Mars.
The next and final step is, obviously, sending people to Mars. That’s scheduled to happen in the 2030s. We’ve learned a lot from the Mars orbiters and rovers, and NASA has another one scheduled for 2020. We have a lot more to learn between now and any potential human launch date, but the fact that we’re finally – finally! – taking a manned Mars mission seriously is exciting.
And remember: NASA is doing all of this on basically a shoestring budget. At least compared to what we were spending during the Apollo days. At the height of the Apollo program, NASA accounted for four percent of the federal budget. NASA’s total budget during the Apollo days was over $56 million, of which Apollo made up over $19 million or 34 percent of the total. In more recent years, NASA’s budget only barely scratches half a percent of the federal budget. That’s still a lot of money, but it can hardly be considered secure. Funding space science research is highly politicized. A lot of people just don’t see the point. Plus, there are questions as to whether current funding levels can get us there. There’s a lot standing between humankind and our closest planetary neighbor.
But, if we can keep our political will and stay the course, it will be worth it. Worth it in ways we can’t fathom right now. The Apollo program gave us technology that became credit card scanners, military rations, and even developed what would become the microchip. Forget for a second about what we can learn on the Martian surface. Think about what we’ll learn from just getting there at all.
More and more I read articles about how to get kids interested in science, technology, engineering and math, the so-called STEM fields. Do you know how to get someone excited about science and math? Land a human being – more than one human being! – on another planet. Show, in perhaps the most visceral way possible, what science and math can do. Think of how Apollo 11 has stuck with us. What kind of impact will Mars have?
And then there’s the long game. The fact is that humanity will not survive on this planet forever. Eventually, the sun is going to use up its fuel and make survival on Earth untenable. Unless we prioritize space science, there is never going to be a good time for ambitious interplanetary projects. We can only rely on private companies for so much. Space travel is inherently risky and pushing the boundaries of manned space flight is risky times a million. Someone needs to be brave. That someone is us.
We’re just babies when it comes to space flight. Like all babies, first steps are hard. But they lead to something wonderful. Plus, Buzz Aldrin thinks we should go to Mars. Are you really going say no to Buzz Aldrin?
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons