This summer, the first human to set foot on another celestial body died, still one of the greatest heroes of the 20th century. On July 21st 1969, as he took his first steps on the moon, Neil Armstrong famously said: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” His immortal words marked the making of history, and with them the world prepared itself for the dawn of the era of manned spaceflight.
As USA and Russia battled for supremacy in space exploration, the audience at home became captivated by the concept of humans making their way into space. David Bowie’s Space Oddity made a hit during the month of the first moon landing, and the year before Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey was such a success that even today there are still claims that Kubrick assisted in the ‘faking’ of the moon landings.
But space fever was short lived, and 40 years on human spaceflight has made little progress. The Apollo programme has so far been the only spaceflight programme to send men to the moon, with Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt – the last men on the moon – setting foot on its surface within 14 years of Armstrong and Aldrin. And since the last Apollo mission in December 1972, humans have not travelled beyond low Earth orbit.
When we consider that less than 70 years on from the first, 12-second flight made by the Wright brothers, we sent man to the moon, we might expect that by now our reach would have extended further still. Technology has certainly made progress; in 1969 the computing power on board Apollo 11 was comparable to that of a basic calculator. So why haven’t humans made it further? Why are we not migrating to space stations on the moon and exploring other planets? Why has man not made the next small step?
It’s not something that hasn’t been considered. At the 2010 Science & Technology Summit, Neil Armstrong said he was “available” if there was ever a need for a commander for a manned flight to Mars. Since the 1950s more than 50 plans have been made to send men to the red planet, but none have yet been executed. Part of the problem is distance – at its closest Mars is still 200 times further away from Earth than the moon. Other issues include practicalities; developing food products that can remain edible during a round trip to Mars is no easy task.
Perhaps we are still making small steps – only not with human feet. The Curiosity rover landed on Mars on August 6th this year, and has objectives of investigating Mars’ climatic suitability to human exploration. The rover has already sent back incredible photos of an unknown world, and has months left to explore Mars.
The discoveries Curiosity will make could take us closer to reaching another planet. Meanwhile NASA insists that they could put a man on Mars “if it was important enough”. When that importance will arise, however, is another question.