I’m old enough to have excitedly watched the grainy TV footage of the first Apollo 11 moon landings in 1969. I can never look at the moon without thinking of this heroic feat of arms. It was achieved just 12 years after the first object, Sputnik-1, was launched into orbit. If that momentum had been maintained, there would certainly have been footprints on Mars a decade or two later. That is what many of our generation expected. In the 1960s, however, there was a “space race” — a contest in superpower rivalry between the US and the Soviet Union, when NASA gobbled up to 4 percent of the US federal budget. Once that race was won, there was no reason to continue with these huge expenses.
For today’s young people, these exploits – still the “pinnacle” of manned spaceflight – are a thing of the past. Still, space technology has boomed. We depend on satellites every day for communication, weather forecast monitoring and navigation. Robotic probes to other planets have returned pictures of varied and distinctive worlds; several have landed on Mars. And telescopes in space have revolutionized our understanding of the cosmos.
This month’s successful launch of NASA’s Artemis 1 rocket – on its third attempt – heralds the start of a new program to send astronauts to the moon this decade – and perhaps eventually to Mars. And there may be parallel developments from China.
Artemis 1 is actually not much different from the Saturn V rockets that launched the Apollo astronauts. Like its predecessors, its booster combines liquid hydrogen and oxygen to create tremendous lifting force before falling into the ocean. Planned launches by the Space X “starship” launcher, similar in size, should be much cheaper because the rocket can be recovered and reused.
Artemis 1 is planned to be followed within two years by a mission that will put astronauts in orbit around the moon. The third launch, later this decade, will allow astronauts to return to the lunar surface – after a gap of more than 50 years.
But it is good that robotic exploration of the moon – much more cost-effective – is being pursued by other countries. And most importantly, that the UAE’s Rashid rover will soon be on its way. The mission, scheduled to launch on Wednesday from Florida’s Cape Canaveral, will be of great interest to all of us, especially since its goal is to study the geology of the moon. I’m also told that thousands of high-resolution images will be made of the surrounding areas, which will not only be interesting to look at, but will deepen our understanding of the moon.
Many even question the reason for sending people. The romance of human spaceflight is undiminished, but there is an important difference between the Apollo era and the mid-2020s; the astonishing improvement in our ability to create, launch and guide robot explorers and manufacturers. Examples include the rovers on Mars, where Perseverance, NASA’s newest prospector, can drive himself through rocky terrain with only limited guidance from Earth. In addition, improvements in sensors and in AI will enable robotic rovers to do geology on the Moon and Mars within 10 or 20 years. Likewise, engineering projects — such as astronomers’ dream of building a large radio telescope on the far side of the moon, free from interference from Earth, or assembling solar energy collectors in space — no longer require human intervention, but they can proceed robotically instead. The same applies to the extraction of rare minerals. Instead of astronauts needing an enclosed and well-appointed environment to come out for construction purposes, robot manufacturers can stay in their workplaces permanently.
Astronauts require much more “maintenance” than robots, simply because their travels and operations require air, water, food, living space, and protection from harmful radiation, especially from solar storms. In addition, safety and reliability standards must be stricter and therefore more expensive when human lives are at stake.
Already significant for any trip to the moon, the cost differentials between human and robot trips would widen for each long-term stay. A trip to Mars, hundreds of times longer than a trip to the moon, would not only expose astronauts to much greater risk, but also make emergency response far less feasible.
Even astronaut enthusiasts accept that nearly two decades could pass before the first manned journey to Mars takes place. In that time, advances in AI will close the current gap between the capabilities of robots and those available to us. In addition, robots could explore the outer solar system at little additional cost, since multi-year journeys pose little more challenge for a robot than the six-month journey to Mars.
The scientific compromises clearly favor robots. But some would emphasize other motives that justify space travel by humans – at least to the Moon, if not Mars.
Close to the moon’s south pole, the “peaks of eternal light,” on the walls of Shackleton crater, which never fall into shadow as the moon rotates, provide the best location for a solar-dependent lunar colony. If this happens, let’s hope it will be achieved internationally, through cooperation and not through conflict. We wouldn’t want the US, China and Russia to create separate colonies – it would be much better if they could work together. Involvement of nations in Europe and in the Middle East – perhaps led by the UAE – would be benign and a very positive symbol of international cooperation.
For many, the compelling case for manned spaceflight is “inspiring”: How can we expect children to lift their eyes to the stars, or their minds to the sky, without suggesting that they will someday travel into space themselves?
And some would find the argument that “humans are explorers – always have been and always will be” even more compelling. Strong segments of our society remain enthusiastic about supporting ever greater journeys of discovery, and it is encouraging that the UAE is taking on this inspiring challenge.
Published: November 28, 2022, 5:00 AM