Although I’m obviously hoping to hang on until my hundredth birthday in January 2065, chances are I will probably die around the year 2045. I’ll be pretty happy with that; I’ll be 80, which is – as we say here in Blighty – a “good innings” – and it will mean I’ll hopefully, if I can still see, manage to enjoy the second appearance of Halley’s Comet in my lifetime. I’m pretty sure we’ll have discovered life somewhere “Out There” by then too. Either we’ll have discovered simple forms of life beneath the rocks of Mars or under the ice of Europa or Enceladus, or we’ll have detected radio or laser or somethingelsewecan’tevenimagineyet transmissions from technological civilisations on the planets of other stars. Yeah, I’m pretty sure that news will break long before I shuffle off the stage – hopefully within the next few years, actually.
But suddenly I’m beginning to wonder if I’m going to die before witnessing the other major event I’ve always longed to see, something I’ve dreamed of witnessing, and being a part of, ever since I was a space-mad kid at St Joseph’s Junior School, hiding out of sight in a quiet corner, pouring over the library’s small collection of science books while all the others were running around screaming outside in the sunshine.
I’m honestly starting to think I might not live to see the first humans walk on Mars.
Why? Well, it all seems to be going into frakking reverse, doesn’t it? Mars rovers are being delayed left, right and centre. The space shuttle is being retired with no replacement ready to fly. Unbelievably, there’s talk of de-orbiting (that’s a fancy, NASA-speak term for ‘throwing away by letting it burn up in the atmosphere like a big shooting star’) the ISS by 2016, just as it’s starting to become a fully crewed, fully functional orbital facility. Let’s face it, we are no nearer sending people to Mars now than we were when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin returned from the Moon – in fact, come to think of it, we’re probably farther away from mounting a crewed expedition to the red planet than we were then! We have no 21st century Saturn V, no heavy lift launcher to carry the components of a Mars expedition ship into orbit. We don’t have a lander that could set down on Mars. We don’t have public support for a manned Mars mission. And as the passionate glow of President Obama’s election support and enthusiasm for NASA cools faster than a hot coal spat out of a fire, and he ties NASA up with yet another bloody red tape review, we clearly don’t have high level political support for space exploration in general, manned or unmanned, either.
No, unless something dramatic happens – like Oppy discovers fossils in the wall of Endeavour crater, or a martian meteorite proves to contain traces of martian bacteria - if we’re going anywhere soon, it’s the Moon, and the date of that trip looks like being put back too. NASA was hoping to – cue dramatic, stirring music – Return To The Moon in 2020. I’ll be amazed if US astronauts are standing on the Moon by 2025, if not later. The Chinese might beat them, but if they do it’ll only be by a couple of years. No-one is going to raise a flag on the Moon, of any colour, design or nationality – for another decade and a half, I’m convinced.
Of course I understand going to Mars is not easy. It’s not like just going “a bit further than the Moon, for a little while longer”. It will require leaps in technology that just aren’t on the horizon right now. It will require more money – a lot more money – than is available right now, in these godawful financially precarious times. It will require a political commitment, and political vision, that just isn’t there right now. It will require an incredibly large jump in public support for and interest in manned spaceflight, that looks about as likely, right now, as Paris Hilton throwing up her hands and saying “Please! No pictures!” as she leaves a club.
No. We’re not going to Mars for a long, long time.
Which really saddens me – no, it doesn’t, I’ll be honest: it really, royally, absolutely hacks me off. It makes me want to punch my fist through the computer screen in front of me here, then go over to the window over there, push it up and howl “Nooooooooooooooooooooooooo!!!!!” out of it.
We should be on Mars now!! Why the hell aren’t we? Oh, that’s right, because we lost our bottle after going to the Moon.
We should be going online today and watching astronauts standing on the edge of the Valles Marineris, controlling a balloon that’s exploring the canyon beneath them! Why aren’t we? Ah, yes, now I remember – because we’d rather spend our money on pet food, cosmetics, pizza and video games.
We should be celebrating the birth of the first child on Mars this weekend, going “Aaaahhhh!” and “Awwwww!” as her picture is shown on every TV news program and on every news, science and space site in cyberspace! Why won’t we? Sorry, I clean forgot – because the public still aren’t convinced that the exploration of space is a worthwhile endeavour, and they see it as a luxury, not a part of our everyday lives, and an insurance policy for the future.
So, here I sit, on this cold, windy day in the Lake District, listening to the rain lashing against my window, looking through it at the steel-grey sky above the slate roofs opposite me, and I’m thinking that I possibly won’t live to see the first man or woman set foot on Mars.
I think my best hope is for a manned mission to take place around 2030, by which time I’ll be 65. That’s okay, I could live with that. I’d – hopefully – still be fairly fit, and independant, and able to enjoy the build up to and culmination of the great event at home, watching the Ares #1 launch and landing in comfort, surrounded by friends and family, all gathered in front of the big holographic widesecreen surround sound VR-immersing TV. I’ll have a “Mars Landing” party, invite all my old astronomy friends, and we’ll sit and reminisce about the “good old days” when we sat at our computers, struggling with our primitive, snail-slow 8Mb broadband connections, watching NASA TV, following shuttle launches, planetary encounters and press conferences. We’ll laugh at how we all held our breath as the twin Mars rovers “Spirit” and “Opportunity” landed, and remember fondly how we followed their epic treks across the floor of Gusev Crater and across the great, wide open plain of Meridiani, respectively. We’ll go strangely silent when we think back to the day when we lost the first rover, and go misty-eyed and frog-throated when we recall the day the second rover died too, ending the great MER Adventure. But we’ll cheer up as we watch that first man, or woman, edging slowly down the ladder, or ramp, or whatever they mount on the outside of the MEM, and then cheer – and in all likelyhood burst into tears – when the first bootprint is made in the martian dust, finally, finally, after all the years of waiting and hoping and dreaming…
But that’s only going to happen if we – and by “we” I mean NASA, ESA, other agencies, private businesses, space enthusiasts and outreachers – all get our act together, if we all pull our collective fingers out and work together to send people to Mars. If we don’t start planning – and I mean seriously planning, not just knocking up reports, fancy Powerpoints and CGI videos – then even that date will slip and 2030 will effortlessly become 2040.
20 frakking 40…
In 2040 I’ll be 75. Oooh, now that’s pushing it. With medical advances etc I should still be around then, Universe Willing, but where will I be? Still in my own home, or being looked after somewhere else?
What kind of state will I be in, mentally and physically?
When I’m not waxing lyrical about Mars, the Moon and the universe, I work in a care home for the elderly, that’s my day job. It’s every bit as challenging, rewarding, upsetting, frustrating, depressing and frightening as you can imagine, but trust me, you have no idea – No Idea – what kind of things I have to do , or what sights I see, during even an average, uneventful day. So I have a dread, a horror, an absolute terror of being somewhere like that when the first manned expedition to Mars sets off. Not because it’s a bad place, not in any way, and certainly not because the people there aren’t looked after well, but because I just can’t stand the idea of not being able to enjoy the lift off, landing and return of Ares #1 – or whatever it’s called – in the way I want to.
I can see it now, clear as day… it’s July 29th, 2040, and I’m sitting in a communal living room or lounge with my fellow residents, and there are just a few minutes to go until the Ares #1 lander touches down on Mars. But no-one else cares. Some are over there playing cards, or something else; others are reading their E-books; others are chattering and nattering away, loudly. The big 3D holo-v is on, over there in the corner, and it should, obviously, be showing the Mars mission live coverage… but it’s showing a soap opera or something equally banal, which is being watched intently by a cluster of hardcore fans, and I know there’s no point even trying to ask them to change channel because the last time someone did that it triggered an argument that split the lounge in two in a horrific ,walking frame-rattling civil war… So, all I can do is watch the clock as time passes by… tick… tick… they must be on the surface by now… tick… tick…
Missed it, missed the whole damn thing…
“Depressed” doesn’t even come close. :-(
This melancholy has never been a problem for me before. I’ve always been very optimisic about the manned exploration of Mars. I have always seen it as basically just a natural progress, a natural evolution from the unmanned Mars exploration program. I’ve grown up thinking that after we’d built a decent space station, and messed about on the Moon again for a while, we’d simply pack the wagons, crack the whip by the horse’s ear and, with a loud “Yee-hah!”, head for Mars…
After all, Mars is the next logical place to go, right? But in the past year or so I’ve detected a very subtle but very real change of momentum within that plan. It’s become all about getting back to the Moon. Mars is now very much an aspiration rather than a goal. Lots of people insist they Want to go to Mars, but none of them are keen to talk figures, either re. dates or finances.
There are three main reasons why we’re not seeing NASA – or anyone else – pushing for a manned mission to Mars right now. mission to Mars. Firstly, there’s just not the money available, and anyone who thinks otherwise is just deluding themselves. The global economy is lying in intensive care, machines and monitors bleeping all around it, after being wounded in a drive-by shooting carried out by the world’s banking and financial institutions. The multiple tens of billions of dollars needed to plan and stage a manned mission to Mars is just not there.
Secondly, there’s no public demand – or, if we’re honest, even widespread support – for a manned mission to Mars. They see the breathtaking images sent back by Spirit and Oppy, MRO and Mars Express and think “Hey, why bother sending people when machines can do THAT?”
But the biggest reason, I think, is that the time required to plan and mount a manned mission to Mars makes it less appealing to politicians than having their picture taken shaking Osaba Bin Laden’s hand whilst kicking a blind puppy. If NASA’s new Administrator, Charles Bolden, went to the White House today and told President Obama that they had figured out a way to get people to Mars within ten years – which would be a hell of an achievement – a little devil sitting on his shoulder would whisper into his ear “Don’t listen to this guy, O! Even if he’s not BSing you, you won’t even BE Prez when the spaceship lands on Mars, it’ll be the next guy, or even the guy after him! You’d just be remembered as the schuck who said yes and handed them a huge fat check to set them off. Why bother when it’ll be someone else talking to the astronauts on the phone after they’ve landed on Mars, not you...”
Oh, don’t mind me, I’m just feeling fed up. But am I alone? Is anyone else out there thinking and feeling the same way? It can’t be just me. My generation has grown up believing, trusting, that we were going to see people walking on Mars in my lifetime. Everyone’s told us that. The presenters on TOMORROW’S WORLD told us that. Science and astronomy books told us that. And look! The “Mars mission” card in the Brooke Bond Tea “Race To Space” card collection (click on image to bring up a full size version and wallow in nostalgia) even set a date for the first manned Mars landing: August 9th, 1982..!
Oh well, I guess we’ll just have to wait and see. Maybe the big review being undertaken of NASA’s manned spaceflight plans will help refocus hearts and minds on Mars. I hope so. I really, really want to be on this side of the grass when that first bootprint is made in the martian dust.
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