THE whole world remembers what Neil Armstrong said about small steps and giant leaps as he climbed down that ladder to the moon in 1969. Fewer Earthlings could now quote the words spoken by lesser-known astronaut Eugene Cernan when he stepped lightly off the lunar surface three years later. “America’s challenge of today has forged man’s destiny of tomorrow,” said Cernan, the commander of Apollo 17. “We leave as we came, and, God willing, as we shall return … ”
As it turned out, though, we never went back. To date, Cernan remains the last man to walk on the moon, and that mission effectively ended the nine-year Apollo programme in December 1972. The space race was over; the United States had won decisively. NASA moved on to less costly projects, sending unmanned probes across the galaxy while keeping its astronauts much closer to home for relatively short shuttle rides to Low Earth Orbit (LEO) and the International Space Station (ISS). Even that cost a lot more than it was supposed to, and now it looks like those days are over too.
Last November, the defence contractor Lockheed-Martin shot a new capsule called Orion more than 5000 kilometres into the air, way out of LEO and deeper into space than any crew-carrying vehicle has been since Apollo 17. There was no crew aboard for that test flight, but next time there will be. NASA’s own launch commentator Mike Curie called it “the dawn of Orion and the new era of American space exploration”, even as the iconic US space agency is beginning to outsource its operations on what they used to call the high frontier.
The new age Curie looks forward to will likely be defined by commercial space travel and pan-galactic enterprise, as starry-eyed businessmen scope out the market potential of sub-orbital passenger flights, asteroid-mining operations, and colonies on Mars. And if the last space race was grounded in cold war rivalries, the next will be fuelled by corporate competition.
With NASA under-resourced, and the shuttle programme decommissioned as of 2011, ISS supply routes have already been opened to private bidders like Lockheed-Martin, the aerospace giant Boeing, and upstart ventures such as SpaceX, which designs and manufactures orbital launch vehicles. Owned by billionaire Elon Musk, with high-profile investment from the likes of Google and Fidelity, SpaceX has completed several successful ISS cargo runs with its patented Dragon spacecraft.
The company’s two-stage Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon V2 capsule have been “human-rated” and will soon be ferrying astronauts too. But Elon Musk is thinking much further ahead, setting his current business model against future climate change projections and global disaster scenarios. He seems to consider these LEO commuter flights a first phase in moving the human race safely off-world. If our planet can’t be saved, reasons Musk, then perhaps we can go elsewhere, and thereby at least save ourselves. “Some people think humans are a blight on the Earth’s surface,” he said recently.
“They say things like, ‘Nature is so wonderful’. I’m not in that school. I think we have a duty to maintain the light of consciousness … ”
Viewed in that light, the moon was the obvious first step of our species’ onward journey, and it is generally agreed that the second must be Mars. Another big thinker, the Dutch entrepreneur Bas Landsdorp, has recently made it his business to colonise the red planet. Over the next decade, his non-profit organisation Mars One plans to send an initial landing vehicle, followed by an exploratory rover and a series of cargo drops to deliver all the necessary life-support equipment.
Around 2026, an advance party of human pioneers – two men and two women – will touch down, assemble a home base, and spend the rest of their lives on the Martian surface, with no way to come back. One of those women may be Ritika Singh, a Delhi-born, Dubai-based electronics engineer and logistician who is through to the third-round shortlist of volunteers for the Mars One project. “Going to space was always my dream,” said Singh when contacted for this article.
“I don’t just follow my dreams, I chase them.” That attitude has undoubtedly helped her survive a highly publicised selection process that has whittled down more than 200,000 applicants to fewer than 100. Asked if those dreams of hers ever morph into nightmares – about rocketing across a pitiless vacuum to live and die on a hostile, distant, unfamiliar planet – Singh says “not as of now”.
“I do sometimes think about how life will be on Mars, but it’s always a positive feeling. I imagine that the mission will be successful and that we’ll be able to survive the harsh conditions.” By Singh’s admission, Mars One appeals to optimists, beginning with Bas Landsdorp himself. His “finance and feasibility” analysis for that first Martian settlement projected a cost of (US) $6 billion, to be covered by broadcasting rights, sponsorship deals, crowd-funding, and private donations.
Even if the full amount can be raised this way, that budget seems profoundly unrealistic to observers in what we might call the professional space community. Previous estimates have ranged from a prohibitive $1 trillion to a comparatively doable $100 billion, the latter worked out by a panel of industry experts at last year’s Humans To Mars conference in Washington DC.
And while Landsdorp insists that all the required technology is already available, his many critics say that even the most experienced engineers have barely begun to work around the manifold hazards and complexities of such a mission.
Professor Jack Burns, of the Centre for Astrophysics and Space Astronomy at the University of Colorado , can list at least a dozen of these off the top of his head. To pick just two, there’s the issue of prolonged exposure to solar radiation that might slowly cook the crew alive en route. Also, the Entry-Descent-Landing or “EDL problem” – getting humans down safely through the Martian atmosphere simply can’t be done with existing retrorocket systems and fuel-load calculations.
In Burns’s opinion, “those Mars One people are basically carnival barkers.” “Beyond that,” he says, “I don’t see the private sector launching a commercial expedition to Mars. Maybe someday, but not in our lifetime.” What he can see is a more immediate future of space transport and tourism, proceeding from the “handoff” that is already occurring between government programmes and corporate entities.
“We are looking at new paradigm,” says Burns. “It’s real, and it’s growing. We’ve got contractors resupplying the ISS, and soon they’ll be carrying crew. We’ve got commercial spaceflights pretty much ready to go. It’s not so difficult to imagine a time when most near-orbit operations are being run for profit.” As things stand now, however, those NASA contracts represent the only real money to be made in space – public funding for private enterprise.
“I don’t think I would have the guts to start up a space company right now,” says Burns. “But someone’s go to do it, and they’re doing it, and later this century I’m sure they’ll be seeing serious returns.” In the meantime there is also prize money to compete for, as state agencies, private investors and tech companies award millions of dollars to newly invented hardware that hits a particular target. The Ansari X Prize may have fired up this new space race back in 2004, when Mojave Aerospace Ventures won $10 million for SpaceShip One – a reusable suborbital vehicle designed to carry three people to altitudes of over 100 kilometres.
Repeated schedule delays and a recent fatal setback notwithstanding, it won’t be too much longer before the first paying spaceflight passengers board the larger SpaceShip Two craft at Spaceport America in the New Mexico desert. The Google Lunar X Prize, meanwhile, will go to whatever engineers can land a privately funded robot rover on the moon, move it more than 500 metres across the surface, and beam back high-definition images.
Professor Burns is working with one of the competing teams, a Silicon Valley collective called Moon Express Inc, which he thinks has a good chance of winning that $30 million “within the next couple of years”, then moving on with their longer-term plan to mine the lunar surface for precious metals and rare metallic elements that could reap them a larger fortune.
In a more academic capacity, Burns is also seeking funding for a new scientific mission to the moon. The L2-Farside concept, developed with several other leading astronomers, proposes sending astronauts around to the hitherto unexplored South Pole-Aitken basin in Lockheed-Martin’s fancy new Orion capsule. The crew would remain in lunar orbit and deploy a remote-controlled lander-rover to investigate the age of that asteroid-impact crater and listen out for the earliest sounds of the universe – the so-called “cosmic dawn” – with a low frequency radio telescope.
The dark side of the moon would also be a testing and proving ground for similar surveys of other planets, including Mars. And this, believes Burns, is exactly what NASA should be focusing on, while the private sector takes care of business in Low Earth Orbit. “I think we’ve wasted a lot of time fumbling around trying to find a destination,” he says. “It’s been very frustrating to hear NASA talk about asteroids as the next stepping stone in space. Many of us don’t agree, while the rest of the world seems to realise that there’s a lot more work to be done on the moon.”
The US flag is still planted up there, but the territory belongs to anyone and everyone these days. China flew its Chang’e 5 T1 probe nearly around the moon late last year, and is now constructing a mid-sized space station, while Japan, Russia, India and even the UAE have advanced their own space exploration programmes (Dubai has its Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre, and the Masdar City eco-conurbation now being built outside Abu Dhabi will also have a base for off-world ventures).
Some have called this an Asian space race, as evidenced by India’s Mangalayan Mars Orbiter, launched in haste last year to capitalise on the failure of a similar Russian-Chinese probe. “I don’t think those countries really consider this a race,” says Jack Burns. “China in particular is proceeding very deliberately. They’re not trying to beat anyone, they’re just exercising their technological muscles.” If and when we do go to Mars, he says, it will take “international cooperation”, as multiple governments and many millions of taxpayers will have to share a financial burden that no business or its shareholders would be willing to bear.
And for that to happen, we’ll have to get inspired about space again, as we haven’t been since those early Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo missions. But back then we were asking brave men to boldly go the distance, where Burns now seems to be suggesting that astronauts stop just short and send down teleoperated robots to do the landing and exploring. Poignant as it is to picture those lonely man-made rovers tracking across alien plains, are they any real substitute for boots on the ground?
“I guess they might not grip the imagination in quite the same way,” says Burns. “But look at the Hubble telescope, which was pretty much done until a public upswell forced NASA to re-service the thing. People love Hubble, they love the pictures, they pay attention. The question isn’t whether we should send humans or robots deeper into space. That’s not the challenge. What we’re talking about is humans and robots together, humans using robots as our avatars. That’s the future we’re looking at.” When he puts it like that, it does sound pretty futuristic.