On May 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy delivered his famous speech to Congress on human exploration of space, asserting, “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.” And indeed, the goal was achieved. With the enormous public mobilization the speech provided behind the program, Apollo 11 was able to land on the moon on July 20, 1969 – before the decade was over, just as President Kennedy had imagined.
Now, standing at the end of the thirty-year-old Apollo project that took men to outer space and then to the Moon, there is a grim feeling among us, especially those who shared the excitement of the moment when Neil Armstrong’s foot touched the extraterrestrial dust on the cover of the Moon. As the Apollo project takes its place on the dusty covers of history, and Atlantis, the last space shuttle, completes its mission, it is quite clear to many that humankind’s dreams of exploring the secrets of the outer space is quietly dying with the project as well.
What will happen to the dreams of the previous generation, to the dream of mankind walking among the stars? The next target, the next dream has been to successfully send a person to Mars and bring him safely back to Earth. However, as a society, we face many critical problems that prevent us from achieving this dream.
First of all, the public faces diminishing marginal returns from space exploration. Placing satellites into orbit in inner space has distinct advantages compared to sending probes to outer space, especially manned ships. The most obvious advantage is the economic one: it much cheaper to send a rocket into the Earth’s own orbit than to send one into the orbit of another planet. It is also true that we obtain many societal advantages from our satellites and probes in Earth’s orbit; these devices have revolutionized weather forecast, telecommunications, geology, and agriculture. Other than the overhyped “colonization of outer planets to save our species” argument, we do not get the same level of tangible benefit from the probes we send to Mars or the rest of the Solar System.
Second, it is unfortunate yet accurate to state that society in the 21st century does not share the same passion for outer space exploration that its counterpart in John F. Kennedy’s time did. A major component of space exploration is the sheer human curiosity and imagination that drive humanity’s passion to always move forward. Revenues gained from the public are used to finance these exploration projects, and without the same amount of dedication and determination from society, it is quite difficult to convince the public to pay billions of dollars for a mission whose social and economic returns are unclear.
Another major obstacle is the technological barrier that aeronautical engineers have to overcome. Sending probes without humans into space is technologically complicated enough. Adding the human variable complicates the process beyond imagination. We can send humans to Mars with the current technology we have, but we do not possess enough technology to supply the force needed to bring them back from the surface of Mars.
All of these arguments leave us with an upsetting question: has the Space Age come to an end?
The leaders of the last space race from the Cold War, the United States and Russia, still have the most developed space technology in the world by far, but both seem to have prioritized social engineering over rocket engineering. Although the Russian agencies are continuing their space missions to some extent, the most likely future leaders in space exploration are the Chinese and Indian governments. The Chinese government has made considerable progress in space exploration, including sending a man into orbit in 2003, becoming the third country to do so. Yet the Chinese still have no rigid government agenda like the one John F. Kennedy had in 1961 . Even if they manage to send a man to the moon in the next decade or so, they are still more than half a century behind the original space race.
Many argue that private companies can prosper in the space race in lieu of public investment. Considering the economic and technological circumstances of outer space exploration beyond the Moon, however, this is a highly unlikely option. Sending a space tourist to the International Space Station costs around $30 million, while the cost of the Apollo program was nearly $20 billion (which is significantly more in today’s dollars). Yet, considering the fact that only a handful of people can afford space tourism beyond the limits of Earth’s atmosphere, it is quite unrealistic at this point to imagine that private enterprises can pick up from where NASA left off.
As men decide to walk only on Earth, it seems as if the dreams of an entire generation – to walk among the stars, to go where no man has gone before – are slowly falling into the ancient pillars of history.
Photo Credit 1: NASA History Office
Photo Credit 2: Daily Mail