Fifty years ago this month, humans took their first steps on the moon. For those of you too young to remember, it is hard to fully appreciate just how much that achievement engaged the entire planet. It certainly influenced me a great deal, even as a 5-year-old, setting me on a path that led me to become a professional scientist.
Those of my parents’ generation saw it all unfold, first listening raptly to the thready radio signals of Sputnik as it circled the globe, and then to President John F. Kennedy’s visionary speech in 1962 that set Americans on a path to sending Apollo 11 thundering into space.
My generation was too young to recognize the space race for the geopolitical contest it was. Instead, we only knew that something exciting was going on. I have vivid memories, as a kindergartener, of sitting cross-legged in a semi-circle, watching several of the Apollo missions on a television that Mrs. Trottier had brought from home. There, plucked from the airwaves by a rabbit-ear antenna, we watched a snowy black-and-white image that today’s kids can’t even imagine. With Walter Cronkite adding his signature gravitas, we saw Neil Armstrong take his first steps on a celestial body that wasn’t the Earth and Buzz Aldrin place the American flag on the nation’s most distant conquest in July, 1969.
I was enthralled by the spectacle and, like many children of the era, decided then and there to become an astronaut. Of course, I had an unrealistic idea of what that would mean. While I knew that the Apollo missions were just the first tentative steps in our exploration of the solar system, it seemed to me that these were soon to be eclipsed by leaps and bounds.
Those of us who were fascinated by the idea of space travel watched the then-new television shows “Star Trek” and “Lost in Space,” which painted an optimistic picture of space travel. I fully expected that by the time I was an adult, we’d have long conquered Mars and would be on to greater challenges, perhaps even having turned our eyes to the stars.
Of course, the challenges of manned space flight are far more complex than my young mind could appreciate. When the last Apollo mission was completed in 1972, NASA pivoted to the Skylab space station, the Apollo-Soyuz handshake, and eventually the Space Shuttle, which first orbited the Earth when I was a high school student, just learning to drive.
I avidly followed these spectacular achievements, going so far as clipping each story from the newspaper and, much to my mother’s displeasure, stapling them to my bedroom wall.
It was in high school when I realized that manned spaceflight hadn’t kept pace with my childhood expectations. Low Earth orbit wasn’t the same as exploring the galaxy and, if we were going to do that, we needed the ability to travel a lot faster. We needed a Starship Enterprise or a Millennium Falcon.
With the confidence of youth, I decided to figure out how to make that happen, and this sparked my interest in physics — a path I followed for the rest of my life, leading to my position as a senior scientist at Fermilab, America’s flagship laboratory aimed at uncovering the ultimate rules of nature. I never did figure out that warp drive thing, but I’ve enjoyed the journey and I still have a couple decades left to think about it. Maybe I’ll get lucky.
Some might say that we have lost our will to explore space, but that’s not strictly correct. It’s certainly true that the last humans to shed the bounds of Earthly gravity were nearly half a century ago, but humanity has sent probes to all corners of the solar system. Rather than humans, robots have boldly gone where no one has gone before, digging into the Martian soil, flying by Pluto, landing on comets, and even venturing slowly intointerstellar space. Unmanned probes are the near-term future of space exploration. They are far less expensive, and they have resulted in a treasure trove of information.
But there is no denying the allure of manned space travel. We have been explorers since our first tentative steps out of Africa, and more recently as Europeans headed westward in fragile crafts of wood and canvas. Space tugs at our imagination.
Ironically, we must both temper our imagination and dream even bigger. For all the plans discussed by engineers at NASA or SpaceX, colonizing the Moon and Mars is hard. Unlike the colonization of the New World, in which colonists could drop seeds in the ground and see food grow, there is no other place in our solar system with such congenial conditions. Pioneers in our solar system will never live like we do on the Earth, feeling the sun on our faces and basking in the gentle morning breeze. Barring terraforming or other science fiction concepts, our future is actually out there among the stars, where there must be planets similar to Earth.
And scientists are looking. Using orbiting facilities like the Kepler Space Telescope and TESS, astronomers try to find planets around other stars. Once identified, the James Webb Space Telescope will attempt to image those planet’s atmospheres. It may be that, in the next few decades, we will identify a nearby Earthlike planet. That’s when things will get truly exciting.
Presumably the first Earth visitor to that distant neighbor will be robotic, but there will certainly be a clamor to send a manned mission. The travel times will be enormous, and the technical challenges will dwarf those faced by the engineers who made Apollo 11 possible.
Barring the unlikely possibility that someone will develop a warp drive, an interstellar voyage will take decades at a minimum. Astronauts will have to survive and thrive for years, with no support from Earth. The half a year or so it will take to go to Mars is easy in comparison. This might be possible, and scientists can point to the now-defunct Biosphere 2 and the NASA HERA project as ways to learn how to accomplish this, how humans can live isolated for both jaunts in the solar system and, eventually, the many years an interstellar voyage will take.
Then there is the danger of radiation, which increases the faster astronauts go. A related concern is high-speed collisions from interstellar dust and pebbles. Engineers will have to make compromises between building a craft lightweight enough to be able to accelerate and yet sturdy enough to withstand these impacts.
There are many skeptics who claim that these difficulties are insurmountable, and success is by no means assured. In my pessimistic moments, even I fear that they are right. There is no question that a successful manned interstellar mission will take a global effort and probably centuries to complete.
But I hope that there will be a day in the future when my great, great, many-times-great, grandchild sits cross-legged with her kindergarten class and sees an intrepid pioneer standing on a planet around a distant sun. That will be the day when humanity truly comes of age.