Wow! The last few weeks, I have watched a bunch of documentaries, movies, and programs on NASA's Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs. Each stage led to the moon landing and everyone involved took significant risks to make it happen. Talk about entering the unknown. Leaving Earth into wide-open space with plans of orbiting man around another celestial body to ultimately land and step foot on it is nothing less than remarkable.
I imagine what it must have been like for Yuri Gagarin, the Russian and first man launched into space. Of course, the mission was paramount. That was until his eyes witnessed a view no one else had ever seen. All from a tiny craft, which may or may not get him back to Earth safely. It all must have been awing and morbid on many levels. Alan Shepard, Gus Grissom, John Glenn and many others would experience that same duality in man's pioneering reach into space.
The first men to orbit the moon: Frank Borman, James A. Lovell, and William Anders and many astronauts before and since risked their lives as crucial, never-been-done risk-takers in man's calculated, multi-step reach for the moon.
With each step more complex, dangerous, and unknown, Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin assumed additional, untried risks, namely, reaching the lunar surface, spending time on it, and ejecting off. As did Michael Collins inside Columbia. Un-docking Eagle from Columbia and re-docking wasn't guaranteed. Nothing was.
Many things had to go right to reach the moon and back. So, when we talk about astronauts returning to the moon in preparing for a Mars mission, multiply the risk and everything that needs to go right by 142 times or more.
Still, I believe, with a focused effort, we would have had astronauts step on Mars by now if we didn't prohibit ourselves from going. Fifty years ago, Wernher von Braun thought we could go to Mars. Yes, there already exist many challenges sending humans into space and we are working on overcoming those where possible. But I'm referring to a self-imposed obstruction. One in which could be minimized, so it didn't seem so damn imposing. I'm talking about funding. But for that to happen, human space exploration would have to become as crucial to our future survival as only one step below basic needs.
There is always a cost for time, materials, and expertise. But do we have to charge each other exorbitant amounts for something that might not save everyone on Earth, but might extend human existence into the future on another celestial body if something were to happen to Earth, our moon, or the Sun? It seems there could be more donations for the cause. Go ahead and give tax breaks. How about if we could go back in time and had only spent a portion of the $100-$150 billion on the International Space Station and we had used half or so toward a Mars mission. Where would we be? Probably on Mars. Or at least tried.
Moving forward, retiring the I.S.S. and putting its annual costs of $3.5 billion toward one, cohesive Mars mission and getting rid of the rest would go a long way. Keeping the I.S.S. open for "commercial" use doesn't seem prudent when it's estimated it will be difficult to recoup the annual costs in fees. How many individuals or companies can afford trips up?
The space race was that - a race - and not space exploration. Sure, NASA sent men to the moon for another 3 1/2 years, then stopped. Space exploration is being done by machines. And it may stay that way, depending on how the next moon shot goes in 2024. At that time, it will have been over 40 years since an astronaut had traveled farther than the I.S.S. in space. And make no mistake, much like the space race, a success will fuel future human missions, while failure may ground the human race to Earth.