The Cold War race to put a man on the moon inspired a generation to gaze upwards and ponder our place in the heavens. It was an outstanding technical achievement and the sight of Neil Armstrong setting foot on the lunar surface was an event that transfixed the globe and had us marvelling at how clever we were. For a flickering moment, all of human-kind, well at least those with access to a television, was united and squabbles over political and religious differences were forgotten.
In Australia, school children were given the day off and I remember families from up and down the street crowded into our loungeroom to watch Apollo XI's historic landing. When Neil Armstrong's historic words crackled out of the television speakers, everyone cheered and there was much backslapping and a few tears. It was truly one of those defining moments of history that made you proud to be alive and part of the human race.
The discussions afterwards, standing around a smoky barbeque in suburban Sydney (in case you are wondering, July is the middle of winter for us, but often mild enough to enjoy a meal and a few drinks outside), turned to the inevitable: and now what? The space race, which sprang into the collective consciousness following the successful launch of Sputnik I in 1957, had consumed our hearts and souls for half a generation, but it was over. Mission accomplished.
Eyes turned further afield. Between 1960 and 1962, both the US and the then Soviet Union had sent probes to both Mars and Venus and the consensus of the next likely step was a manned mission to another planet, most likely Mars. Though not our closest neighbour, Venus, with its cloying atmospheric blanket of carbon dioxide and surface temperatures of around 460 degrees Celsius, was never going to be an option. Mars, with its Earth-like seasons, varies from -140 degrees Celsius in winter to 20 degrees Celsius in summer and is a much more viable proposition in terms of human brings being able to actually stand on the surface (without being fried or frozen). There was even talk within NASA and I recall former US President Richard Nixon of future manned missions to Mars.
The expectation at the time was that, by the turn of the century, this would be a common occurrence and we would probably be starting to think about exploring further afield, perhaps something interstellar. The 1960s and early 1970s were a period where we'd taken our first tentative steps beyond the safety of our own planet and it was expected to be the start of something new. At the time, we dared to dream and almost anything seemed possible. So where did it all go wrong?
Realistically, I think a couple of things put paid to the grand dream. Firstly, the cost. The Apollo program, up until the successful landing of Apollo XI, was estimated to have cost between US $20-$25 billion. That is a lot of money to travel to a rock 385,000 kilometres away. Mars though is roughly 55.7 million kilometres away at its closest approach to Earth, a bit of a logistical nightmare to say the least. Equating the two is like comparing a quick jaunt down to the corner store with driving between Sydney and Brisbane. Not such an issue with an unmanned flight, as machines don't have to worry about our trivial concerns about things like breathing, eating, and waste removal.
Space travel is inherently risky. The multi-stage rockets we currently use are basically huge fuel tanks thrust skywards by a series of controlled explosions. Things can and do go wrong and, when they do, the consequences are disastrous, not just to the astronauts and their families, but to the space program as a whole. The tragedy of the Challenger space shuttle in 1986 set the program back six years, with opposition to the perceived economic extravagance of frequent space shuttle missions now backed up by a Presidential Commission (known as the Rogers Commission) that found numerous flaws in NASA's administration and many aspects of the shuttle program.
To quote the late great Douglas Adams, "space is big". It is unimaginably huge and the danger increases with the distance. No-one wants to see another Challenger and a manned trip to Mars is fraught with danger - the probability of something going wrong is very high and, if something does wrong, the chances of it being fatal to those aboard are likewise very high. Notwithstanding all the technical issues, the magnitude of this journey is such that it will take around six months to get there, then there is the return trip. Some twelve months in the cramped confines of a rocket is pushing the envelope of human endurance. The risks are huge and, in my view, not worth the potential pay-off, which is really just a question of bragging rights of being the first to set foot on another planet.