Yesterday (July 20, 2012) marked the anniversaries of some important dates in human history, specifically in space exploration. On July 20th, 43 years ago, Apollo 11 accomplished its mission by landing the first humans on the moon: Neil Armstrong, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin and Michael Collins. Also on July 20th, 36 years ago, the Viking 1 lander successfully gathered a wealth of data and pictures from the surface of Mars.
In 1969, Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins made history and expanded humanity’s knowledge of the cosmos. It really was a “giant leap for mankind” as Armstrong famously said. Only eight years prior, humanity’s first satellite was launched into orbit (igniting the Space Race). We weren’t even using telecommunications satellites until 1962. NASA met President Kennedy’s ambitious goal and landed a man on the moon by the end of the 1960s. For that, we and future generations will be forever grateful. The Apollo program sent men to the lunar surface five more times until its end in 1972.
NASA’s Viking program was not the first to land spacecraft on the surface of Mars, or another planet for that matter. The Soviet Union’s Venera 3 was the first spacecraft to land on another planet in 1966. However, in this case, “landed” means “crashed-landed on Venus.” The first spacecraft to (crash) land on Mars was another Soviet mission, Mars 2.
Viking is special because it was the first lander to successfully reach the Martian surface and send back large amounts of data and photographs. The Viking program changed our view of Mars by revealing that the Red Planet may have had water on its surface in the distant past. Today we know that Mars did in fact have water on its surface billions of years ago.
The Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), NASA’s fourth rover to the planet, is almost at its destination. In another 15 days, it will land on the Martian surface and search for the building blocks of life with the most advanced scientific equipment ever sent to another planet. The MSL owes its very existence to its trailblazing cousin, Viking 1.
I often find myself frustrated with NASA and the condition of human space exploration. Why haven’t we achieved more? Why has it been decades since the last lunar landing? Why haven’t we sent humans to the surface of Mars yet? Aren’t we supposed to have hotels in orbit around Earth!? I realize that the answer to these questions is very complicated (funding, cost, national/international goals, technological capability, etc.). But someone as idealistic and geeky as me still wonders why we haven’t achieved more.
Don’t get me wrong, we’ve accomplished an incredible amount. We’ve sent men to the moon. The Voyager probes are rapidly approaching interstellar space. We can communicate instantaneously from anywhere on the globe. These are all the “stuff” of science fiction, and they’ve all been accomplished during the last 50 years….that’s it….five decades. Think of the whole of human history, all (roughly) 200,000 years of it. Half a century is an incredible leap from undersea cables and transcontinental railroads to complex networks of communications satellites and countless probes traversing the Solar System.
I am confident that in my lifetime men will go to Mars and possibly the moons of Jupiter and Saturn. I am even more confident that at some point in the next couple decades, mankind will have a permanent outpost on the moon. If we could send men to the moon in the 1960s and land a spacecraft on Mars in the Decade of Disco, we can push the limits of human exploration to the outer Solar System in the 21st century. Missions like Apollo 11 and Viking 1 were milestones that expanded the reach of our species. Their contributions to human accomplishments and exploration will always be seen with reverence and awe.