Fifty-two years ago tonight, the world sat transfixed, staring at a fuzzy black-and-white TV image of Neil Armstrong setting foot on the moon.
If you’re trying to measure the pace and scale of human progress, consider this: It took 66 years from the Wright Brothers’ first 12-second flight over the sands of Kitty Hawk to setting down on another celestial body.
The question is where we will be 66 years after the landing of Apollo 11 — the pace of exploration has clearly leveled off, but might soon spike again.
Right now, we can’t get back there. We might in a few years, however, and if we do, the official goal is to put a woman on the moon.
In November, NASA is scheduled to launch an uncrewed test flight of Artemis 1, the vehicle that we hope will take humans back to the moon.
Today is the one day of the year when we depart from our usual commentary on issues pertaining to Southwest and Southside Virginia and look toward the skies — or beyond them to the stars.
This November’s test launch of Artemis 1 is important, but not the most important event related to space exploration going on this year. Unlike the 1960s, when the space race was between Americans and Soviets, today it’s between, well, anyone with the money.
Three billionaires all have space ambitions — Sir Richard Branson has already ridden his Virgin Galactic space plane on a suborbital flight. (He went up 50 miles; Alan Shepherd’s suboribital flight went more than 100.)
Today, Jeff Bezos aims to ride his Blue Origin rocket on a similar suborbital flight — along with an 18-year-old high school graduate from the Netherlands and an 82-year-old woman who trained for space flight during the Project Mercury days but was denied admission to the NASA program due to her gender. (Wally Funk is her name and she is said to have outperformed John Glenn in the sensory deprivation tank.)
Elon Musk says he’s put down a deposit to fly on a future Virgin Galactic flight, but he has very different ambitions: He wants to put humans on Mars, not just to explore but to live there — and turn humans into a multi-planetary species. Think of that as an insurance policy in case we mess up our home planet too badly, which we are quite capable of doing.
Among those who follow space exploration, there is no doubt that someday humans will walk on Mars, the only question is when and who will be first.
If you’re the betting type, here’s a good bet to make: The first humans there probably won’t be Americans on a traditional government-funded mission, i.e. Apollo.
Admittedly, the United States has done the best job of any nation of landing machines on Mars. Earlier this year, we put yet another rover on the surface — this time with a helicopter. That means we now have two rovers — Perseverance and Curiosity — poking around the surface, studying the rocks and what they tell us.
(If you’re looking for local angles, we do have three with that Perseverance mission. A seventh-grader from Fairfax County suggested the name. The flight controller also grew up in Fairfax County. And when the rover landed, its signals were beamed back to earth through the radio telescope in Green Bank, West Virginia, before being relayed to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California.)
In any case, there’s a big difference between landing a machine on Mars and landing humans (and bringing them back) — not just in the engineering but also in the price tag.
Human space exploration requires consistent and ample funding, two things that the United States is not particularly good at.
Our attention span is too short and, of course, there are always arguments about how else that money should be spent.
That’s why almost as soon as we got to the moon, we stopped going and have had such a hard time getting back.
NASA talks about sending a crewed mission to Mars in the 2030s. That’s probably technologically possible, but not politically possible. That’s at least three presidential elections away, which means an opportunity for three different sets of funding priorities.
There’s a much better chance that the first humans will be put there by people who don’t have to worry about pesky things like elections.
Musk said last year he was “highly confident” that his SpaceX company will launch humans to Mars by 2026. That seems overly ambitious to us — we’re five years out and there’s no crew vehicle — but we don’t have Musk’s bank account.
Meanwhile, the head of China’s main rocket manufacturer told a space conference earlier this year that China aims to send its first crewed mission to the Red Planet in 2033 with follow-up missions on a regular schedule every two years after that.
That might be ambitious, too, but China certainly has the political will to make this happen if it really wants to. China has launched relatively few crewed missions to earth orbit; a three-person launch in June was its first in five years and only second in eight years. But China has been pursuing its space goals very methodically, as you might expect from a centrally directed economy.
China has landed rovers on both the moon and Mars, and that lunar rover is on the far side — something no other nation has done. No one should be surprised if someday a news flash comes across that China really has launched a crewed mission to Mars — although we predict politicians from both parties would quickly flood our airwaves to blame somebody other than ourselves for not being first.
Nonetheless, on this July 20, the United States remains the world’s most space-faring nation.
We’ve sent people and machines to places no other country has done and we’re planning to send more.
This year NASA announced not one but two new missions to Venus, an under-explored planet that might actually tell us more about our own home than Mars can.
Venus and Earth are both about the same size; at one point Venus may have had a temperate, Earth-like climate with oceans — perhaps for 2 billion years, which is not an insubstantial amount of time. Now it’s a hellish landscape with poison air and temperatures hot enough to melt lead. It might be in our best interest to figure out why, lest we accidentally do to our planet whatever nature did to Venus.
Tonight, Venus and Mars shine in the western sky, while the moon hangs oversight, all within reach, if we want them to be.