Small Steps, Huge Leaps, and Great Bounds

By Jameson O’Reilly, Applied Physics and Electrical Engineering, 2019

In 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin lived the dream that billions of humans have had for hundreds of thousands of years. Humans had long been curious about what lies beyond our humble Earth, but it took a decades-long struggle for international dominance to push that curiosity into action.

The USSR’s launch of Sputnik, the first artificial satellite to successfully orbit Earth, marked the beginning of the Space Age and the shifting of huge amounts of government resources to space exploration. The crowning achievement of this era, humans landing on the moon in a vessel with less computing power than a modern cell phone, took only about 12 years to come to fruition and has not been replicated in over 40 years.

Since then, even as the development of technology and therefore our capability to explore has accelerated, NASA’s funding as a percentage of the federal budget has suffered a slow but steady decline. Astronauts are still exploring; the Curiosity Rover recently found evidence of liquid water on Mars and New Horizons recently took the first color photo of Pluto. What they are not doing is the kind of awe-inspiring trailblazing that made kids born in the 1960s grow up dreaming of becoming astronauts.

We have the technological capabilities to do even more amazing things, but space exploration is not one of the government’s top priorities, and will not be for the foreseeable future.

This leaves many with their thirst unquenched. Even without the massive societal excitement about space exploration that existed during the Space Age, humans’ inherent curiosity about space still exists. The shifting of resources after the end of the Cold War opened up the field to a new wave of explorers.

One of the most exciting is Mars One, a non-profit foundation that plans to send four astronauts to start a settlement on Mars by 2027. They claim to have all the technology necessary to complete the mission, especially because they have no plans for their astronauts to return, but raising money for the trip is still a huge issue. The first mission alone is estimated to cost around $6 billion, which they plan on funding mainly with investments and the sale of marketing and broadcasting rights for “the most profound and influential event of the 21st century.”

Mars One is exciting and ambitious, but also a very risky investment. The explorers’ success depends on huge amounts of generosity and trust from others who are unlikely to have much of a return on their investment, even if the mission is successful. This is why a much different strategy is being taken by SpaceX, another organization with the ultimate goal of supporting a human settlement on Mars.

The main difference between Mars One and SpaceX is that the latter organization does not have a timeline for travel to Mars yet. For now, they are focused on developing their technology both to ensure a successful mission and to earn money to support it. They currently offer launch services for other companies and even have a $1.6 billion contract with NASA to send supplies to the International Space Station.

Should either mission succeed, the achievement would finally surpass the 40-year-old moon landings as our farthest push into space. A human settlement on Mars is the kind of amazing accomplishment that could inspire a whole new generation of explorers. Though NASA is no longer leading the way, new leaders are emerging to bring us into a new Space Age.