Destination Red Planet (probably) and (maybe) beyond
Image credit: Nasa
Half a century has passed since Nasa’s Apollo programme first put humans on the Moon and we haven’t been back since. All that is set to change in the coming decades, says David Whitehouse in his new book ‘Space 2069’.
By 2069 not many of us will be around to celebrate the centenary of Apollo 11, the Nasa space mission that was to put the first humans on a planetary body other than our own. While the achievements of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, in leaving their footprints in the lunar dust, rank among the apex moments in human civilisation, following Apollo missions 12, 14, 15, 16 and 17 (13 never got there), we haven’t been back. The winding up in the 1970s of the colossally expensive programme marked the end of Moonwalking.
But when our descendants come to pop the champagne corks and dwell on the scale of Nasa’s endeavours, it will be in the context of having returned to the Moon, according to former BBC science editor David Whitehouse (who also has an asteroid named after him), the author of ‘Space 2069: The Moon, Mars and Beyond’. By then we’ll have established a sustainable lunar colony, he predicts. “We know how to get there, the technology is more advanced now, and the engineering’s straightforward enough.” More than that, there is a serious chance that we can use our new Moon base, which will also be used for mineral extraction, as a launch pad to finally get to the Red Planet.
‘Space 2069’ follows hot on the heels of Whitehouse’s 2019 book ‘Apollo 11: The Inside Story’, a tale he told in lengthy, detailed and fascinating quotations from the main protagonists in the project. But, with what is “essentially the sequel”, Whitehouse decided that a different approach was required, one that led him to a type of book that is as much generically related to science fiction as it is to the historical record.
“It was a lot of fun,” he says. “I thought, well we’ve celebrated the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11: why not celebrate the 100th, looking back from the year 2069? Not only could I then sit in the present looking forward over the decades at things which are already planned, but I could also plonk myself in the future and do a bit of looking back.” This crossover format also allowed the author to analyse missions that are not currently planned, but “seem to me to be plausible and entirely logical”.
Anyone thinking that ‘Space 2069’ is just another pie-in-the-sky slice of over-optimistic futurology needs to think again, because Whitehouse’s predictions for the next five decades are deeply rooted in not just his analysis of technological advancement, but also the realpolitik of government funding, international competition and public support for projects.
“There’s too much space hype about the future. Far too much,” says Whitehouse, who dismisses Elon Musk’s predictions about sending hordes of people to Mars in the near future as “nonsense”. “I decided that everything I wrote about had to be reasonable, and of course, that slows down the future. Some people say that in ten years’ time we’ll be mining asteroids. But, in fact, I think that in ten years we’ll have barely started on the Moon.”
Looking back from the present over the past half a century, Whitehouse says, “you can see just how slowly things happen, which means that there is a possibility that nothing will happen in the next 50 years. But we will probably go back to the Moon and maybe to Mars in that timeframe.” Whether these things come to pass or not depends on delays created by politicians: “There will be obstacles and hiatuses. And that’s why I’ve been very careful in my book not to let the science-fiction aspect of it all take over.”
Whitehouse then turns his attention to the Moon’s Shackleton Crater, a potential site for ice mining. “We know how to mine ice. But we’ll need to get there first and practise.”
The brakes on off-world exploration are applied by political expediency, says Whitehouse. Space projects go off the rails because of “competition for the money. It’s as simple as that.” US presidents, he continues, “like to start these things. But after a year or two the budget always seems to be rather high, and the money’s needed somewhere else.”
In the case of the 2005-2009 Constellation Program, initiated by George W Bush, “Congress wondered if they could get away with a billion dollars less. Then there’s a big argument about that and they end up chopping off $500m and that cripples the project, because the only way you can respond to that is by extending the duration. So you move at a slower pace, and then someone says: ‘you’re moving too slowly, why are we wasting our money?’ It’s a vicious circle. It happens all the time.”
It’s starting to happen now, says Whitehouse, with Nasa’s Artemis programme that has the goal of landing “the first woman and the next man” on the Moon by 2024.
It was all so different back in John F Kennedy’s day, when putting humans on the Moon by the end of the 1960s was regarded as the endgame in a Cold War chess match with the Soviet Union. To put it bluntly, there was a political victory to be had, while space exploration was the means to that end. But the world we find ourselves in today may not be so different, argues Whitehouse, in that one of the unintended consequences of the current diplomatic stand-off between China and many other space exploring nations could provide the catalyst.
“Tensions are ramping up and China is sensitive about its space programme. They’ve not put in a fantastic amount of money compared to what it has in the past. It’s going slowly but purposefully, ticking boxes, acquiring this or that technical capability. There will come a time – especially after the Space Station has been commissioned – when they will feel in striking distance of the US. And if they start showing signs of putting someone on the Moon, we might find ourselves in a similar situation to the Apollo days.”
‘Space 2069: The Moon, Mars and Beyond’ by David Whitehouse is from Icon Books, £16.99
Ever since the great speeches of President John F Kennedy setting the US on course for the Moon before the 1960s were out, Nasa has wanted another JFK moment, another impetus to move outwards that the politicians who control the purse strings could get behind. Indeed, every subsequent president has wanted his own Kennedy moment, a speech as memorable and inspiring.
Since the heady days of Apollo there have been three times when a US president has directed the nation to go back to the Moon, but none of them ever got anywhere. Presidential initiatives and administrations came and went. At times, the goal was the Moon, then it was Mars, then back to the Moon, then an asteroid, and then back to the Moon again. It almost seemed as if we didn’t really want to go: we would go through the motions, make designs and spend billions building rockets, but it never really felt that the end of the process would be footprints on the Moon.
We resigned ourselves that each initiative would end in some sort of failure, consoling ourselves that starts and stops were part of the process, that future generations would benefit and that eventually politicians would get it. Looking at why this happened is instructive and provides some idea of the problems those with Moondust and Mars-dust in their eyes have when dealing with the political world. Neil Armstrong knew that you didn’t get to the Moon with rockets and willpower. Any Moon mission is launched from the real and messy world.
After the Apollo 11 landing a Space Task Group was created by President Nixon to look into what to do next. One thing was clear to Nixon: it had to be much cheaper than the Apollo program. In fact, no more Apollos.
Edited extract from ‘Space 2069’ by David Whitehouse, reproduced with permission.
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