Fifty years ago today, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans to land on the Moon. It remains one of the great moments in human history, but what happened next? At the time, as a thirteen-year-old schoolboy, I assumed that it would only be a few years before humans reached Mars. Half a century later, it sill hasn’t happened.
Six more missions to the Moon followed Apollo XI, of which only the drama of Apollo XIII and the survival of Jim Lovell and his crew made any kind of headlines. A total of twelve people – all men – walked on the Moon. Of the twelve, four are still alive including Buzz Aldrin. Neil Armstrong died in 2012 aged 82. Apollo XVII – the last lunar mission – returned to Earth on 19 December 1972, and no spacecraft carrying a crew has since left Earth orbit.
The exploration of the Solar System has been carried out purely through robot space probes. By 1969, American and Soviet probes had flown past Venus and Mars, returning data and – in the case of Mars – a few low-resolution images. Since then, space probe have reached every planet in the Solar System (including Pluto), with long-duration orbital missions of all the planets out to Saturn, and the asteroids Vesta and Ceres. There have been landings on Mars, Venus, Titan, and several asteroids and comets. There have been active rovers on Mars since 2004. At the beginning of this year, the New Horizons probe returned photographs from the distant Kuiper Belt object 2014 MU69 Ultima Thule.
But in comparison to the 1960s, human activities in space have progressed at a snail’s pace. The Russians never went to the Moon and turned their attention to space stations in low Earth orbit, which in the long term was more useful than simply duplicating the efforts of the United States. The MIR space station was in service from 1986 to 2000, and was permanently occupied between February 1990 and August 1999. There has been a permanent human presence in space in the International Space Station since November 2000.
Much of the technology of 2019 was certainly science-fiction in 1969 – computers have evolved from room-filling machines affordable only by large companies to mundane household appliances. Much of the gadgetry from the original series of Star Trek – which made its way over here from the States a fortnight before the first Moon Landing – seems quite primitive compared with present-day smartphones, iPads, and the like.
So what of crew-carrying spacecraft? The Russian Soyuz, which first flew in 1967, is still in service. The Chinese Shenzhou – currently the only other crew-carrying spacecraft in service – is based heavily on Soyuz technology. Since the retirement of the Space Shuttle in 2011, the US has been without the means to launch humans into space, and is having to thumb lifts from the Russians to the ISS. This will change when the privately operated SpaceX Dragon 2 and Boeing Starliner spacecraft come into service later this year.
To date, only the US, Russia, and China have sent humans into space, although citizens of forty countries have flown in space. India plans to launch a crew-carrying spacecraft in December 2021. No other nation currently has plans for an indigenous human spaceflight program.
American plans for an expedition to Mars have come and gone over the years. The Orion program, instigated by President George W. Bush in the wake of the Columbia disaster, has yet to fly with a crew. More recently, the Artemis program has a stated goal of returning humans to the Moon by 2024. Proposals include the Lunar Orbital Platform – a space station in lunar orbit, from which landers will take humans to the surface.
The Russians are working on similar proposals with a timescale for the 2030s and a Soyuz replacement known as Federation. Presumably this name-checks the Russian Federation (as Soyuz did the Soviet Union) rather than Star Trek’s United Federation of Planets. The Chinese are reviewing preliminary plans for a lunar expedition in the 2030s.
Ten years ago, I expressed the hope that I would live long enough to see humans land on Mars, but this is looking increasingly unlikely.
The Apollo program fulfilled President Kennedy’s goal of putting Americans on the Moon before the end of the 1960s and – no less important – before the Russians. The program was criticised because of the many problems back on Earth. Sadly, these problems have not gone away. The Cold War ended thirty years ago, but it was no more than a brief thaw in East-West relations. It is now clear that geopolitical competition rather than communism vs capitalism lies at the root of the hostility.
The international situation now – eighteen years after 9/11 – is as bad as it has been in my lifetime. Worldwide, the rise of the populist Right continues unchecked. Here in the UK, we have had almost a decade of Tory-inflicted austerity following the global financial crisis of 2008, and the last three years has been dominated by the incompetent shambles of Brexit. Yet these problems are inconsequential compared to the existential threat to humanity posed by climate change.
Nevertheless, we must not turn our backs on space. At minimum, self-sustaining colonies on Mars and the Moon would increase the chances of our survival as a species. I won’t be around in another fifty years time, but I can only hope that by the time we reach the centenary of Apollo XI the world is in a better state than it is now and humanity is firmly established as a multi-planet species.