During the space race, astronomy was all the rage. Children put up posters, built their air fix models and so many wanted to grow up and journey into the stars just like Captain Kirk and the rest of the crew of the Starship Enterprise. Space was huge, massive even, and when Apollo 11 finally touched down it was a game changer. For the first time space exploration was actually viable, which had even more kids dreaming of the stars. This made everyone think about the future and it actively birthed budding scientists and engineers into society, the people that make that future a reality.
Unfortunately as soon as Apollo 17 came home, this buzz wore off. Sure we sent up many other manned missions, but none of them captured the hearts and minds of the world as much as it did between 1969 and 1972. Events such as The Challenger disaster further cemented that we weren’t ready to explore the cosmos like everyone dreamed.
So this brings us to the present climate of space travel. It raises the question and makes us think, are we entering a new era of space enthusiasm? And if so, how can we maintain it and keep it alive?
The new Ridley Scott movie, The Martian, has been the jumping point that NASA has been waiting for. The movie was highly regarded as one of the most realistic depictions of space travel we’ve seen on the silver screen. This was both said about Interstellar and Gravity, but in all honesty, The Martian is the closest representation we’ve had in decades. However, suddenly, as soon as the movie comes out, NASA pop out of nowhere with #JourneytoMars with a detailed report of exactly how they intend to do it. This was a shock and a surprise. Unfortunately, the reports didn’t highlight key features that are required such as budget and deadlines. Regardless, they actually have a plan to do this and they are dedicated to pushing it and making it a reality. What makes it even more exciting is the fact that for 2016, NASA have received $750 million more than they requested, with $1.3 billion more that in 2015!
This is huge! Credit can only go to their social media team for making this a reality, however, where do we go from here?
The plan is to have humans reach Mars sometime in the 2040’s. That a long time away, which means that NASA needs to keep interest high in order to attain this kind of budget for the foreseeable future. NASA isn’t going to jump directly to Mars from low Earth orbit, where the ISS circles, they are going to do it in stages. Here lies the key to keeping interests high. Through mass publicity of these events, it will keep the focus on smaller, yet attainable goals before we finally take the final leap.
One of the first steps, almost a proving ground, is the Asteroid Redirect Mission. This involves sending a robotic probe to a near-Earth asteroid, removing a chunk and guiding it into a lunar orbit that will be visited by astronauts. This is planned by NASA to happen by 2025. However before that they plan to send up a new Mars Rover in 2020 to further test the recent discoveries, such as water and potentially life!
The first crewed Mars mission will not be landing directly on Mars but rather it’s moons, Deimos and Phobos. This would ensure that the technology is capable of reaching Mars’ orbit and reduce the risk and cost of landing directly on the planet itself. This would allow NASA to place valuable resources on these moons so that when the actual trip occurs they go to these moons first and then transport people and supplies down to the Martian surface.
These are huge steps, and if documented and presented right, might ensure that an aspiring child now would become the first person to leave a boot print in the Martian soil. This is easily achievable, as here in Britain, we’ve been shown every step of Tim Peake’s journey to the International Space Station on national television in Stargazing Live. It’s not just all down to NASA though. SpaceX’s recent success with their Falcon 9 rocket shows that space travel really is accelerating faster than ever.
However, to make this work and to inspire the world, I believe it needs to be an international effort. America or Russia aren’t going to go to Mars. Earth is. Internationally we need to band together to create fantastic educational material that utilises astronomers, astronauts, scientists and engineers to encourage young people to want to become the people that get humanity to Mars.
Astronomy has gained the reputation of being a dull hobby; but it really isn’t. Interest is rapidly increasing because people like Chris Hadfield proved it wasn’t. He spun around weightless in the International Space Station whilst singing David Bowie. That’s the coolest thing any human has ever done and you cannot ever deny that fact.