The passing of Eugene Cernan in January this year focussed the thoughts of many. He had famously said he was disappointed that after over 40 years since his final lunar landings, he was still the last man to have set foot on the moon. Exploration is something which appears built into the DNA of humanity. As a species we are inquisitive and seek knowledge in every corner of the physical world. So, why has the progress we made all those years ago come to an apparent halt?
To be fair, there have been continued manned missions by various countries into Earth orbit, but nothing as ambitious as the lunar landings, nothing that we have not done hundreds of times before. These missions have been of commercial or scientific interest, but to what ends?
There have been huge strides in unmanned exploration of the solar system, not least the recent landing of a probe on the surface of the passing comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko by the ESA. The Rosetta mission successfully landed Philae, a probe the size of a washing machine, on comet 67P moving at a velocity of 135,000 km/h (38 km/s; 84,000 mph) by accelerating Rosetta through the gravitational wells of various planets in the system to reach an acceptable relative velocity. The mission was not without its considerable challenges, but the overall outcome was a resounding success.
So, where will the next manned giant leap come from?
Enter the entrepreneur Elon Musk and SpaceX. There has not been a space race since the Apollo lunar missions of the 60s and with SpaceX teaming up with NASA there is unlikely to be one to Mars, but Elon Musk’s latest ambitions in sending men and women to Mars appear to be the next big leap that mankind has been collectively dreaming about since the moon landings. With the additional public awareness fuelled by movies such as The Martian, written by Andy Weir, and similar TV shows documenting exploration of the red planet, the public backing and expectation has never been greater.
Current planned timelines begin with research missions and testing of the technology beginning in the next couple of years, culminating in manned missions sometime in the mid 2030s. To some these dates still feel too far away, but in terms of research and effort the next 15 years will be here in the blink of an eye.
If you are one of those who consider efforts to get to Mars too slow, then think in these terms. We are aiming to reach Mars, on average 225 million km (140 million miles) away. The first successful powered flight was made by the Wright brothers in 1903 covering a distance of 37 m (120 ft), a little over 114 years ago. Our first moon landing was by the Apollo 11 crew in 1969, the crew travelling a distance of 384 thousand km (238 thousand miles) to get there. From simple extrapolation of the dates, it appears the NASA/SpaceX planners are looking at some sort of 66 year anniversary landing on Mars in 2035.
Reaching Mars will be another monumental human achievement and to do so for the 2035 target date will take a huge effort from all those involved. On top of this, the timeline mathematics will be historically consistent and somewhat pleasing.