Crewed missions to the moon and Mars need dreamers and doers | Tech News
IN THE early 1600s, astronomer Johannes Kepler began to write what is now considered to be the first science fiction story. Somnium, published posthumously by his son in 1634, imagines “daemons” that help travellers journey to the moon and observe Earth from its surface.
More than three centuries later, this flight of fancy became a reality when Neil Armstrong took one small step. “It suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth,” he later said.
Since then, we have come crashing back down to our little blue world. Although the International Space Station has been a success in low Earth orbit, the changing political winds have left NASA struggling to get any crewed deep-space missions off the ground. As presidents have come and gone, the agency has spent decades flipping between prioritising a pioneering trip to Mars or a return to the moon (see “Team moon vs team Mars: the battle over the future of NASA”).
What Kepler never had to consider is that space flight is very, very difficult. With fanciful daemons in short supply, NASA is currently conducting detailed tests of everything from incredibly complex and powerful rocket systems (see “Giant rocket simulator helps engineers tweak before first launch”) to the intense psychological effects of being cooped up for years on end (see “The Habitat: Podcast power turns us into terraformers”) in an effort to reach Mars. Even so, a launch date in the 2030s is only vaguely pencilled in.
That hasn’t stopped some people chasing even wilder ambitions. Researchers are now seriously studying how we might reach Proxima Centauri b, the closest Earth-like exoplanet (see “Colony ship to nearest star only needs crew of 100 to survive”). It may be centuries before such a mission launches – and the journey itself would take millennia – but space exploration requires a broad church. Without both the dreamers and the doers, we will never get anywhere.
This article appeared in print under the headline “Our place in space”
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