Many people of my generation grew up believing that the trajectory of space exploration would continue on from the Apollo missions.
Werner Von Braun, the German scientist that helped propel us to the stars, and many other people intimately involved with the space program indicated that the next step would be Mars. His Apollo rockets were overkill – he was looking far beyond the moon.
Science fiction programs like Space:1999 depicted a regular presence on the moon before the end of the twentieth century. At secondary school, my art teacher asked us to paint portraits of what we would be doing in 2020 and mine showed me in a uniform on Mars with some rather minimal breathing apparatus.
Clearly, we had not only reached Mars… we were well and truly on the path of terraforming the planet.
But none of this has happened.
President Nixon was apparently presented with two options for NASA’s immediate future.
One was to build on the Apollo missions and work towards getting to Mars. The other was the space shuttle program, remote exploration and a more orbital emphasis.
Nixon chose the latter.
There is no doubt that the close call of the Apollo 13 mission had made many wary of the risk of putting people in space. The Vietnam War was dragging on. The fanatical interest in space exploration that had informed the Apollo program waned and humanity’s focus turned increasingly inwards.
Today people are enthralled by tiny handheld devices that have vastly more computing power than Neil, ‘Buzz’ or Mike could ever have dreamed of in the 1960s.
Space exploration continued of course. Voyager has given us a new perspective on our solar system and our place in it. The Mars rovers have started the long process of better understanding Mars.
Today there is renewed impetus to return to the moon and get people to Mars.
A lot of this is coming from private concerns like Space X whilst NASA has a renewed focus. But for many people of my generation, the dream of being part of a truly interplanetary species has been delayed decades presumably so we could concentrate on war, social media and despoiling the planet.
I hope we get to Mars. I hope to be around to experience what that means for us as a species. But it looks unlikely I will experience going there personally.
No wonder a former NASA scientist said he felt ‘betrayed’.