Part 2 of 2

Continued from July 19

Since 1969, American space policy has been marked by apathy, mistakes and dead ends. The space shuttle was a technological marvel that turned out to be dangerous and never met the turnaround time that had been promised. Multiple presidents — George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush, Barack Obama and now Donald Trump — have declared that we’ll go to Mars, but none have followed through with the funding that such a mission would require. Whatever you think of Trump, he has been more rhetorically enthusiastic about the space program than all the presidents since Lyndon Johnson combined. Even he, though, has had to deal with a fundamental divide in the space-faring community: Do we focus on returning to the moon in a permanent way or do we focus on an Apollo-like sprint to Mars? Actually, a trip to Mars would be more like Apollo times 722. The Apollo 11 flight took eight days there and back. A round-trip flight to Mars would be about two years.

The policy question before us is much like the ones that faced Spanish monarchs of the 16th century: Should we invest in setting up a colony in North America or should we send Ferdinand Magellan on an around-the-world trip (which took about three years, so was effectively the Mars mission of its day). The difference is Spanish kings didn’t have to worry about voters asking why we should pay for either.

Fifty years after Armstrong’s first footsteps on the moon, we remain mostly earthbound — but on the cusp of a new space race. This one is also between the superpowers, except their names are Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos. We have billionaires building their own rockets, and envisioning their own private space programs. Again, a historical parallel: Governments funded the initial voyages of discovery and the initial settlements, but ultimately private enterprise took over.

For better or for worse, the same thing is happening with space. Private companies — some launching from Wallops Island on Virginia’s Eastern Shore — are taking over the business of trucking satellites into space, leaving NASA to focus on exploration. There’s still the ultimate question of a moon base or Mars, but for now NASA has a clear, short-term objective. In May, NASA announced the goal of returning to the moon by 2024 — with that moon base established by 2028. The moon program will be called Artemis, the twin sister of the mythological Apollo. NASA also says Artemis will do what Apollo never considered: It will put a woman on the moon.

NASA presently has 12 female astronauts. Likely at least one of them will walk on the moon. As for Mars, let’s do the math. Armstrong was 38 when he stepped onto the moon. If he’s the model and the 2030s are the official goal, then that means the first astronaut on Mars is probably between 18 to 27 years old now. Wonder who she is?

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