Reflections After 50 Years of Space
A protege of Wernher von Braun, Jesco von Puttkamer has spent his long career working in human spaceflight. In this long essay to be posted over the next five days, von Puttkamer gives his perspective on humanity's next steps into the universe.
Humankind's future lies in space. It's already being implemented: 16 nations are in the process of jointly building their first place of residence off Earth in the cosmos. Its purpose in the near- and middle-term is scientific research on humans and their environment, and the development of our economy, industry and quality of life. It is a solid long-term investment in new knowledge which we do not have yet and which, without spaceflight, we also would not have tomorrow. Although we cannot predict the results of scientific research enabled by crewed space missions (just as we cannot avoid making mistakes in conducting them), we can predict that without the Space Program there will be no new knowledge, no new solutions beyond those obtainable down here on Earth.
Viewed in the longer range, our residence in space will at some time expand farther outward into the solar system to encompass our neighboring world Mars in its ambiance.
Mars -- fourth planet from the Sun: For thousands of years its warlike, fiery-red color has been part of human awareness, and for hundreds of years its relative nearness and similarity to Earth have made it an object of fascination and unbounded curiosity for scientists. In the 21st century, astronauts and cosmonauts will land and gain a foothold on it, but the run on the Red Planet actually already began a long time ago. We have launched robotic probes since 1964 (Mariner 4), and Mars Landers since 1976 (Viking 1 & 2). More orbiters and landers will follow to explore this new world. And then -- humans.
Mars has moved increasingly into the focus of public interest since 1996, when news came of the discovery of what could have been microscopic life forms in a piece of Martian rock which fell on Earth as a meteorite 13,000 years ago. Since then, water ice, long known to exist at the poles, has actually been found by a surface-scratching lander, and orbiters have photographed what could be signs of liquid water. The question of life existing on our neighboring world goes back centuries; in 1976 it also stood behind NASA's two successful Viking landing missions. Their experiments, however, have left everything open: they discovered no life as we know it; because of their partially contradictory-seeming soil measurements the existence of microscopic Martian life, today or in the past, has neither been proven nor dismissed.
A discovery of life forms on Mars would doubtlessly be the most important scientific discovery of the past and current century. Its consequences on our world would be profound and enduring, affecting all spiritual and material sectors to a presently barely-conceivable extent. It would open fantastic possibilities for our past and future: Has life on Mars and Earth started separately, or did it arrive in both worlds long ago per "meteor mail" in form of viable spores from the distant reaches of space? Or have we humans developed originally from seeds borne by an early Mars meteorite and are we therefore the real Martians? Without doubt, it will also give higher priority to the search for later fossils of higher forms of Martian animal and plant life, and for fossils on other bodies of the Solar system, such as the moons of the outer planets and certain asteroids. Perhaps there is life on Mars even now. Moreover, the quest for life outside the solar system in the galaxy would also be touched by it, thus leading to heightened interest in the search for radio signals from other intelligent civilizations.
More often than ever before, people are asking, when “we” will fly to Mars, and whether indeed that neighboring planet is suitable for eventual settlement by human pioneers.
The exploration and settlement of Mars as a monumental long-term goal is a Millennium Project with a globality far exceeding any other foreseeable future venture of humankind. The process has picked up momentum in our time, but the outreach to our neighboring world really began a long time ago: Undeniably we have been on our way since the days of the first engineering dreams of Konstantin Tsiolkovsky and Hermann Oberth and the first rocket launchings of Robert Goddard, Wernher von Braun and Sergei Korolev. In the third Millennium which we entered a few years ago, this process will occupy the participating Earthlings over decades and centuries and eventually permeate all of their cultural sectors -- scouting, surveying, researching, exploring, settling and home-building.
Several reasons argue for human flight to Mars in the foreseeable future. First of all, of course, is the continuing search for past or current life: i.e., for bio-oases and fossils, not only of microorganisms but also of higher life forms. Humans themselves must be in the local arena, in situ, to be able to adapt, reset, and recalibrate their instruments and change their research protocols in accordance with actual, freshly-made discoveries on the spot without time delay. Later, the question of whether and how homo sapiens itself can live on Mars "off the land" and find a new home there will likely be of existential importance for the future of the human species.
NASA and its partner organizations in Russia, Europe, Japan, and Canada -- 16 nations in all -- are almost finished with the construction of an essential precursor-waystation on this road: the International Space Station (ISS). Its scientific research is in part intended to investigate long-duration human existence in space and the development of key technologies for Mars missions, discussed tomorrow. In our long-term planning of space exploration by humans, we see it as the first plateau for the migration of future generations into the solar system. After this consolidation phase, as it were, lasting perhaps a decade and focusing on learning and developing, Mars -- for me -- is the next plateau.
Next: The International Space Station