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Are Moonshots Still Possible?

A half-century after the first Moon landing, America’s triumph in the Space Race still stands out as an unparalleled feat of perseverance and ingenuity. Had advances in human space travel continued apace, there would almost certainly be human footprints on Mars, too.

I cannot look at the Moon without being reminded of July 20, 1969, when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin planted the first human footprints on its dusty surface. Then a young astronomer at the University of Cambridge, where the English astronomer Fred Hoyle was the top professor, I joined hundreds of millions of others around the world in witnessing grainy television images of that historic moment. When I met Fred the next day, he was enthralled. In addition to being a brilliant scientist, he was also an author of science fiction and had been anticipating this moment since his own childhood in the 1920s.

The exploit seems even more heroic in retrospect, given how “primitive” the technology was. Consider, for example, that NASA’s entire suite of computers was less powerful than a single smartphone today. Moreover, much of the crucial equipment going into the mission was not fully tested, including the Apollo Lunar Module (LM) that was needed to blast off from the moon’s surface with Armstrong and Aldrin for the return journey to the command module.

Given the risks, then-US President Richard Nixon’s speechwriter, William Safire, did the prudent thing and drafted a speech for a scenario in which the astronauts were left stranded. “Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace,” he wrote. “These brave men, Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin, know that there is no hope for their recovery. But they also know that there is hope for mankind in their sacrifice.”

One of the key events leading up to the moon landing was, of course, the Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik 1 in 1957. It was the first man-made object ever to orbit the Earth, and Laika, the first dog in space, followed later that year aboard Sputnik 2. Four years later, the Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human to be launched into space. Upon his return, Gagarin visited London, where he was mobbed by enthusiastic crowds, prompting British Prime Minister Harold MacMillan to remark, sardonically, that it would have been “twice as bad if they’d sent the dog.”

As a demonstration of Soviet prowess at developing intercontinental ballistic missiles, these successes caused widespread alarm in American political and national-security circles. With the express objective of catching up to the Soviets, and surpassing them, the US made it a national priority to establish its own preeminence on the “high frontier.” “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth,” US President John F. Kennedy declared in 1961. “No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important in the long-range exploration of space.”

In pursuit of this goal, the US embarked on the Apollo program, which led to far-reaching technological advances. In the program’s peak years, NASA absorbed around 4% of the US federal budget. Nonetheless, in 1967, the program’s its first crewed flight, Apollo 1, was a disaster. The spacecraft caught fire on the launchpad, killing its three astronauts. By December 1968, however, NASA had achieved worldwide acclaim with the successful launch of Apollo 8, which circled the moon ten times before returning to Earth.

On Christmas Eve that year, the astronauts on board read from the Book of Genesis and sent a Christmas message to those on the “good Earth.” It was during this mission that LM pilot William Anders snapped his famous “Earthrise” photo, framing a cloud-strewn blue Earth in contrast to the sterile grey surface of the moon. This image has been an environmentalist icon ever since.

“Earthrise,” by William Anders, December 24, 1968 (SSPL/Getty Images).

Two missions to test the lunar lander – a small module that would detach from the main spacecraft and deliver two astronauts to the Moon’s surface – followed Apollo 8. Then came Apollo 11. “The Eagle has landed,” Armstrong reported when the LM touched down, before taking “one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.”

There were six more Apollo missions after that. All succeeded, with the exception of Apollo 13 in April 1970, when astronaut Jack Swigert famously radioed mission control with the words, “Houston, we’ve had a problem here.” The shuttle’s power supply had failed, but thanks to repairs and heroic improvisation by Commander Jim Lovell (portrayed in a memorable 1995 film by Tom Hanks) and his fellow astronauts, the mission concluded safely.

On the rest of the Apollo missions, astronauts brought a motorized “buggy” that could travel several miles on the lunar surface, gathering samples of rocks and fine-grained lunar “soil.” The Apollo program ended in 1972 with Apollo 17’s safe return to Earth.

Armstrong’s “small step for man” came 12 years after Sputnik 1, and 50 years after British aviators John Alcock and Arthur Brown’s completion of the first transatlantic flight. Had the pace of advances in aerospace travel and technology been sustained in the half-century following the first Moon landing, there almost certainly would be human footprints on Mars by now.

The problem is that the Apollo program was motivated by the US strategic imperative to “beat the Russians.” Once that had been achieved, there was no longer any justification to continue the project, at least not on the same scale and with the same level of funding. In the absence of economic or political demand, the pace of innovation will always be slower than what is technically possible.

In fact, it is naive to think that technological progress always accelerates. Sometimes, it stagnates. The Boeing 747 and the Concorde made their first flights in 1969; the former is still in use today, and the latter has gone the way of the dinosaurs. By contrast, smartphones have advanced and spread globally far faster than most management gurus would have predicted.

Similarly, hundreds of people have ventured into space since the first moon landing. But their missions have been anticlimactic, even routine. Most have simply circled the Earth in low orbit from inside the International Space Station (ISS). Their voyages simply do not offer the same inspiration that the pioneering Soviet and American space exploits once did. The ISS makes headlines only when something goes wrong – such as when the toilet breaks – or when an astronaut stages a publicity stunt along the lines of Canadian Chris Hadfield’s performance of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” in 2013.

Still, space technology – if not human space travel – has burgeoned. Modern society now depends heavily on orbiting satellites for communication, navigation, environmental monitoring, surveillance, and weather forecasting.

Moreover, unmanned probes have journeyed to all the planets in the solar system. In 2015, NASA’s New Horizons beamed back close-up photographs of Pluto, which is over 20,000 times farther away than the moon. NASA’s Cassini probe spent 13 years studying Saturn and its moons, and was in flight for nearly 20 years before its final plunge toward Saturn’s surface in 2017. In other words, it was designed with 1990s technology. Just imagine what we could do with space technology that has improved as rapidly as the standard smartphone.

Pluto (foreground) and its largest moon, Charon, photographed by NASA’s New Horizons probe in July 2015 (NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI)

In the coming decades, the entire solar system – planets, moons, and asteroids – will be explored by fleets of tiny automated probes, interacting with each other like a flock of birds. Giant robotic fabricators will be able to construct solar-energy collectors, telescopes, and other giant structures in space. Some aspiring space pioneers, like Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, envisage a future in which most industrial production actually takes place off Earth.

The question, of course, is whether this future will include a role for humans. On one hand, NASA’s InSight lander, now trundling across the Martian surface, will miss startling discoveries that no human geologist would overlook. On the other hand, machine learning is advancing fast, as are sensor technologies. And there is still a huge cost difference between manned and unmanned missions. The practical case for pursuing manned spaceflight grows weaker with each advance in robotics and miniaturization.

For young people today, the Apollo program is ancient history. Of the 12 men who walked on the moon, only four are still living. A rather crass interviewer once asked Apollo 17 astronaut Harrison Schmitt “what it was like, being on the moon.” Schmitt replied with the obvious: “being there.” Will there soon come a time when no human has first-hand memory of standing on another world? It would be deeply saddening to see human exploration of space simply fade into history.

If there were going to be a revival of the “Apollo spirit” and a renewed effort to build on its legacy, a permanently manned lunar base would be a credible next step. Robots could construct it with materials brought from Earth and mined from the Moon. An especially propitious site is the Shackleton Crater at the lunar south pole. In addition to being 21 kilometers (13 miles) wide and 4.2 kilometers (2.6 miles) high, its location guarantees that it is always in sunlight. Not only would it be spared from the extreme temperature contrasts one experiences on most of the moon’s surface – where each month is divided evenly between sunlight and frigid darkness – it also may contain an ample supply of ice, which would be crucial for sustaining a “colony.”

Mars, of course, is a more alluring target, but it is also more remote. I, for one, hope that someone who is already alive today will eventually walk on the Red Planet – as an adventure for its own sake, and as a step toward more distant goals. NASA, however, will confront significant obstacles in achieving a human Mars landing within a feasible budget.

The main problem is political and cultural: the American public demands that such missions come with almost no risk. The NASA Space Shuttle was launched more than 130 times, with only two of its missions ending in disaster. But those episodes were national traumas, because the shuttle had unwisely been promoted as a safe vehicle for civilians, such as the schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe, who died in the 1986 Challenger explosion. Professional test pilots and adventurers would readily accept an implicit failure rate of less than 2%.

Meanwhile, China has amassed enough resources that its dirigiste government could pursue an Apollo-style program if it wanted to. The Chinese have already achieved a “first” by landing on the far side of the moon, and they will surely try to follow up with a manned lunar base. But a true “great leap forward” would have to involve footprints on Mars, not just on the Moon.

Leaving aside the Chinese, the future of manned spaceflight seems to lie with privately funded adventurers. That means those who are prepared to participate in a cut-price program that is far riskier than what Western governments can get away with.

Among the current players in this field, SpaceX – led by Elon Musk – has already docked its Crew Dragon capsule with the ISS and developed a reusable launch system, presaging real cost savings. SpaceX, along with Bezos’s rival effort, Blue Origin, will soon offer orbital flights to paying customers, bringing the culture of Silicon Valley into a domain long dominated by NASA and a few staid aerospace conglomerates.

The phrase “space tourism” should be avoided when discussing these private-sector schemes, because it creates a false impression that such ventures are genuinely safe. If the wider public starts to believe that, another Challenger-like trauma will become inevitable. It is far better for these exploits to be billed as a kind of extreme sport or intrepid exploration.

SpaceX’s partially reusable Falcon Heavy rocket takes off from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center on April 11, 2019 (Joe Raedel/Getty Images)

At the current pace of development, it is reasonable to expect that by 2100, thrill seekers in the mold of English explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes might have established “bases” on Mars. But don’t count on there ever being a mass emigration from Earth.

To be sure, Musk, like my late Cambridge colleague Stephen Hawking, envisions a rapid build-up of large-scale Martian communities in the not-too-distant future. But insofar as such a project is meant to escape problems here on earth, it is a dangerous delusion. Addressing the threat of climate change may seem daunting now, but it would be a cakewalk compared to terraforming Mars. Once one leaves Earth, one will not find any place in the solar system with an environment more suitable for humans than even Antarctica or the top of Mount Everest. There is no “Planet B”; we must cherish and protect our Earthly home.

Nonetheless, we and our progeny should support those who venture forth from Earth, because they will play a large part in shaping humanity’s future. Being ill-adapted to their new habitat, pioneer Martian explorers will want to redesign themselves by harnessing genetic and cyborg technologies that will be developed in the coming decades.

One can only hope that these new technologies and techniques will be heavily regulated on Earth, and subject to stringent prudential and ethical standards. But “settlers” on Mars will reside far beyond the clutches of any government or regulator, and we should wish them the best of luck in modifying their progeny to adapt to alien environments. It is space-faring adventurers, not those of us comfortably adapted to life on Earth, who will spearhead the post-human era.

And yet, given the vast timespans of the cosmos, there is no reason not to expect a post-human era on Earth as well. Our solar system is 4.5 billion years old, and it has taken most of that time for humans to evolve from the first lifeforms. The sun, however, is less than halfway through its life. Hence, though we are a special species, we are not the culmination of evolution; in fact, we may not even have passed the halfway mark.

Organic creatures need a planetary surface environment, but if post-humans make the transition to fully inorganic (electronic) forms of intelligence, they won’t need an atmosphere. They may prefer zero-gravity settings, especially when constructing extensive but lightweight “habitats.” Thus, it is in deep space – not on Earth or even Mars – that non-biological “brains” may develop and surpass the powers of human imagination.

The timescales for technological advances are but an instant compared to those of Darwinian natural selection; their duration is less than one-millionth of the vast expanses of cosmic time lying ahead. It is reasonable to assume, then, that a “secular intelligent design” could yield results extending across the entire galaxy, surpassing modern humans by as much as we have surpassed slime molds.

Even so, the first steps away from our Earthly home are epochal events in themselves. Those who venture forth in the future will owe the opportunity, in part, to the original Apollo astronauts. We must never forget them, even as we confront problems and celebrate achievements in space that they never would have imagined.

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