This week we saw Elon Musk’s SpaceX company nail yet another flawless touchdown on a floating platform. After sending yet another payload in to orbit, the reusable first stage reentered the Earth’s atmosphere, headed back toward the landing site, a feat which some accomplished helicopter pilots would struggle with, and all via software and remote/autonomous control. We marvel at what to many of us who grew up in Gerry Andreson’s wake, will see as Thunderbird One, but in reality. So many aspects of what we considered science fiction in the 1960s and 1970s are now, much to our delight, science fact.
When considering what movies such as Star Wars, Star Trek, 2001: A Space Odyssey (Jules Verne got it pretty spot on with some of his predictions for lunar travel 100+ years ago) have given to us, it’s hard not to marvel at how far we have come, especially when things like the Google Lunar X Prize goal may be a reality only a decade or so on from the first commercial space flight.
This week alone plans were unveiled for a Mars based space station. Using some of the current planned mission launches one can see that it’s not a huge leap in faith or technology to visualise this happening, and overall looks likely that it is the best and most secure way to deliver astronauts to the Martian surface. In the early 1960s plans were afoot for how to get to the Moon, and proposals like lunar rendezvous were dismissed as being “far fetched” or “nonsensical”, that was until careful study showed it to be pretty much the only way to do it (at that time). What I guess we do have to be thankful for is that in the modern era we don’t dismiss ideas as readily as we did then. We have vastly greater gender and racial equality, choosing people on merit rather than on any other factor. When someone says “we will do xyz in the next 5-10 years” we generally believe it could happen. I wonder, is this hopeful attitude enough to see us through to our next giant leap?
And yet with that said, some 45 years on from our last foray to the lunar surface, if you said “we’re heading back to the Moon or on to Mars” people take it with a huge pinch of salt. Is it because we have been promised this so many times, by so many presidents? Or is it that we’re still hoping that people like Musk and others will be the true deliverers of the ultimate goal in human exploration?
I think the term “Watch this space” has never been a more apt saying.