Blast off time for heroes?
The news this week that Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon, died at the age of 82, after undergoing heart-bypass surgery to relieve blocked coronary arteries, has unsurprisingly generated many column inches of tributes from around the world.
As commander of the Apollo 11 mission, Armstrong became the first human to set foot on the surface of the moon on July 20, 1969, generating as he did so one of the best known quotes in the English language: "That's one small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind."
President Barack Obama was quick to label him "among the greatest of American heroes, not just of his time but of all time"; though the epithet of hero was one which Armstrong himself was modest enough to dismiss, while his family called him a "reluctant hero".
The 1969 moon landing was an incredibly risky enterprise and it was Armstrong's quick wits and calmness that saved the day. The Eagle landing craft contained no more computing power than a modern desk calculator, and was heading slightly off course when Armstrong took over the controls manually. He landed with a mere 20 seconds' worth of fuel, and what's more, got the Eagle back up again to rendezvous with Apollo 11. There was no backup plan, and certainly no way of rescuing the crew had things gone horribly wrong.
It is quite clear that the public at large is in desperate need of heroes – people to look up to and emulate, as their own self esteem is lacking. Nowadays the very notion of a hero has been so distorted by the media, quick to make instant attention grabbing headlines. Throughout the recent Olympics in London, there were "heroes" declared by the dozen. Even idiots who jump into fast flowing rivers to rescue a pet, that should never have been let off its leash in the first place, are routinely described as heroes, despite all the nuisance and inconvenience they cause to the public safety organizations, who then have to rescue them from their own folly.
Apollo 11 itself had landed on the moon only twelve years after the launch of Sputnik, and only 66 years after the Wright brothers' first flight. But it's been 40 years since the last men – Harrison Schmidt and Eugene Cernan - visited the moon, three years after Armstrong, and I suspect their names are known to very few these days.
The moon race was an end in itself, driven by an urge for the Americans to beat the Russians. Once that had been accomplished, funding was cut back considerably and robotic space missions took over. I have no doubt that had the pace and budget been preserved we would by now have seen human footprints on Mars.
But does it really matter? Throughout this century and beyond, the entire solar system will be explored by flotillas of unmanned spacecraft. Much of the science fiction films of the last century will become science fact with a likely scenario of mining structures being built in space to collect minerals from passing asteroids. Domestic demand for minerals will push up prices to such an extent that the cost of space mining will no longer be prohibitive.
India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh confirmed, during a speech this month to mark the 65th anniversary of India's independence, that his country will launch a space mission to Mars next year in what he said would be a huge leap forward for science and technology, despite some critics complaining that the RMB500m could be better spent. He said the unmanned orbiter mission would be launched in November 2013 – making India the sixth country to launch a Mars mission.
Some excitable American space writers are even suggesting that perhaps the Chinese will embark on a prestigious space spectacular. For this, a return to the moon would not be enough, they argue. To repeat Neil Armstrong's feat, 50 years later, they would surely aim to trump Apollo by launching a manned mission to Mars.
NASA, of course, has already achieved the remarkable feat of landing a nuclear-powered rover on Mars where it is likely to explore for a number of years. Another Mars mission has also been announced, involving a much simpler robot designed to drill below the planet's surface.
So it is likely that future manned missions to the moon and beyond will only be viable if they are cut-price ventures, headed up by individuals with the heroic quality of the Apollo astronauts, prepared to accept high risks. That is exactly the essence of a dream thought up by a Dutch company that is aiming to send the first humans to Mars. The only thing is, there are one or two "minor" drawbacks…
First and foremost, it'll be a one-way trip. Scientists as of this moment have no way to get a spacecraft back from the Red Planet. The start-up company, called Mars One, says it's deadly serious about landing four astronauts on Mars by 2023, and will search for volunteers next year.
Mars One will film the whole thing as a reality TV show, though unsurprisingly many are questioning the ethics of asking people to finish their lives in outer space, under TV scrutiny.
The man behind Mars One, mechanical engineer Bas Lansdorp, believes the project would come in at around $6 billion, more than twice the $2.5 billion cost of the Curiosity Mars mission. The idea for its financing came after talks with Paul Romer, one of the creators of "Big Brother", the first smash hit reality show that is shown in local editions across the world.
"Funding will be possible through media spectacle built around the adventure," he told the news agency Agence France Presse. Under his plan, training astronauts, their months-long space journey and their lives on Mars would all be televised — along the lines of "Big Brother".
Landsdorp has a physicist, an industrial designer and a communications specialist on his team. They will run the operation, he said, and things like building a space ship and living quarters will be outsourced to companies "most qualified". If things go according to plan, selection and training will start next year; then modules for the space station, food and robotic vehicles will be sent between 2016 and 2022. A first group of four men and women will set foot on Mars in April 2023; others will follow until there is a colony of 20 a decade later.
Despite widespread incredulity, support has come from the Dutch Space Society, whose chairman Gerard Blaauw said it's a "visionary idea to combine media and aerospace". He commented on Mars One's 12-language website (http://mars-one.com/): "This merger... alone means Mars One is worth watching!"
So prepare yourself for a new round of self-styled heroes to be unveiled on our small screens in the coming months. The real question, though, is whether they will be no more than just idiotic people so intent on getting into the media spotlight that they risk their entire futures for the sake of some media frenzy.
Well, as they say, there is one born every minute!