One small step

Today marks the 49th anniversary of Apollo 11 landing on the Moon. What was one small step for Neil Armstrong was indeed a giant leap for all of humanity. Our ability to harness science as technology allowed us to reach into space with Gagarin and to the surface of the Moon with Armstrong, Aldrin & Collins.

Since then, the temptation has been to look at the stagnation of crewed spaceflight as defeat. A common complaint is, why didn’t we go on to Mars? For the past half a century, we’ve barely left a low earth orbit so it looks like NASA’s finest hour was in the 60s and early 70s, but that isn’t the whole story.

NASA/ESA, etc make the impossible look mundane, the astonishing look routine. For all the talk of putting men and women on Mars, the reality is we’re incredibly fragile, needy, bulky creatures. Keeping us alive is both costly and risky. The sheer distances involved are phenomenal, far beyond what most people realize.

Consider this…

Distance Miles (avg) Kilometers (avg) As a percentage of journey to Mars
Earth to Mars 140,000,000 225,000,000
Earth to Moon 240,000 380,000 0.1714%
Earth to International Space Station 255 410 0.0002%

If we scale these distances and compare it to a road-trip from New York to Los Angeles, look at where our Apollo adventure gets us, and where we are on the International Space Station.

Distance Miles (avg) Kilometers (avg) As a percentage of journey to LA
New York to LA (by road) 2,790 4,500
Equivalent journey to Moon 5 7 Not outside of NYC
Equivalent journey to ISS 27 feet 8.2 meters Not outside the building

To make it a little more visual, let’s consider visualise this…

Here’s our epic road trip to LA

Here’s our Apollo journey to scale, which is barely a trip between two museums in New York.

It’s basically an uber trip for tourists, right? It took 400,000 engineers and scientists to get just three of us downtown!

And our journey to the International Space Station, which is still a PHENOMENAL feat of engineering…

Yeah, that doesn’t even get us from the reception area in the Hayden Planetarium out to Central Park West!

One day, we’ll walk on the surface of Mars, but it will take an astonishing amount of precision and planning, and yet look at what we’ve done with robotic explorers. New Horizons flew by Pluto last year. On our scale, that’s the equivalent of circling Earth roughly twelve times! Compared to wandering through the hallways of the Hayden Planetarium or even our trip to the downtown museum, that is remarkable, phenomenal, astonishing, breathtaking (I’m running out of superlatives). And it was done with pinpoint precision.

Imagine how exciting it would be to hit a hole-in-one on a golf course. Now, imagine hitting that hole-in-one from the other side of the planet, with your golfball orbiting the planet twelve times before rolling into the hole.

We may not have walked on Mars (yet), but what NASA/ESA and others have accomplished over the past fifty years since Armstrong and Aldrin took those small steps have continued to be gigantic leaps forward. Our exploration of the stars and planets has transformed our understanding of our origins.

We’d all love to see more Buck Rogers and space clippers like those depicted in 2001:A Space Odyssey, but that’s the icing on the scientific cake. What we are seeing with the likes of Hubble, Cassini, Curiosity and soon Tess and the James Webb Space Telescope is the equivalent of running a marathon following that one small step.

Ad astra per aspera.

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