This week marks the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon Landing on July 19, 1969, and there has been a predictable flurry of reporting about the event. The New York Times asked me and a few others to recall our memories of the 1969 events, in which I recalled how enthralled I was as a 15-year-old, staying home from school to chart the entire missions, building scale models, and dreaming of one day perhaps being the first Canadian Astronaut.
My opinions have changed considerably, although not completely, since that time. I would still jump at the chance to go into space. I also recognize that human space exploration may be the height of exciting adventure, but that is about all it is. The best science we will ever do, and the most exciting knowledge we will ever gain, will involve unmanned space vehicles, robotic devices, and a lot less money than the $200 billion we are going to spend getting Americans back on the Moon 50 years after they left.
This past year also saw the 40th anniversary of another space event, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Stanley Kubrick’s remarkably realistically rendered version of Arthur C. Clarke’s vision of a future in which humans would travel throughout the solar system with abandon.
The movie now reminds me of a John Prine song, Living in the Future, where he jokingly argues that by now, based on reading the newspapers 15 years earlier, “We're all driving rocket ships, and talking with our minds.”
While no one might have guessed we would leave the moon in 1969 and not return again ‘til perhaps 2020, we should have guessed that the real world in 2001 would not resemble Clarke’s vision. What we have learned in the last 40 years is that human space exploration is inordinately costly and far more dangerous than we were led to believe by the successes of the Apollo program.
Moreover, the limitations on human space travel are far more mundane than science fiction on television or in the movies suggests. We are not held back for lack of a warp drive, although real fuel costs are another reason why it is so much cheaper to send unmanned missions into space. Rather, the chief obstacle against human travel to Mars is simply cosmic radiation. During the 18 months or so to do the round trip journey a lethal dose of radiation is likely to be received.
Television and movies have built on our innate human desire to explore the universe by inventing fictitious ways that we can tool around the galaxy. I have no problem with this, especially if it gets people thinking about what might be possible without giving them the misimpression that fiction and reality are the same thing.
And none of this suggests to me that we shouldn’t go into space. Rather, we should do it realistically; recognizing that if we are to continue doing science we need to separate science from the manned space program, and also not waste huge amounts of money on things like the International Space Station under the guise that anything useful will be learned there outside of how humans can live 200 miles above Earth’s surface for extended periods. And, finally, we should come to grips with the limitations that physics and biology put on human space travel.
Frankly, I have always thought that one of the things that makes human space travel so exciting for people is the possibility that the astronauts may die in the process. It is, in a sense, the ultimate reality show, where the odds are life and death. So maybe there is room for a movie in which the NASA of the future requires astronauts who want to go to Mars to make it a one-way trip, focusing on the wrenching choices they would have to make in order to live out their dreams. That would certainly be less disconnected with reality than the gap between 2001: A Space Odyssey and the space program circa 2009.