Mankind is overdue for another grand gesture.
Thus, on this anniversary of Apollo 11, consider 11 numbers that speak to what was accomplished 50 years ago and why Mars is in reach.
Start with the fact that over 500 million people, 15% of humanity, watched the moon landing live on TV on January 20, 1969.
That “one small step” took place just 2,503 days after President Kennedy set the vision in his “within this decade” speech. That was a time arguably more fractious and divisive than we face today: the economy was in a shambles and America was embroiled in a debilitating war in Southeast Asia, the culture was in turmoil with violent college protests and race riots were rampant. But we still went to the moon.
Everything about space travel begins with conquering energy challenges. The distances involved require astronomical speeds and our planet’s mass exerts a nearly inescapable gravitational force. Each pound of Apollo astronaut required 10,000 pounds of fuel to escape Earth’s gravity. (Getting to the space station and low earth orbit leaves you still deep in the gravity well.)
A rocket 20 times more powerful than had ever been built by 1962 was needed to put a man on the moon.
A rocket 10 times more powerful than those in use now will be needed to send humans swiftly to Mars, and return them safely.
The moon is 1,500 times more distant than the furthest humans had journeyed into space by 1962. Kennedy had faith, but no idea as to how engineers would achieve his simply stated goal.
Mars is, on closest approach, less than 400 times further away from Earth than the moon.
Supercomputers are 1 billion fold more powerful now than in President Kennedy’s day. Thinking machines can amplify the human ingenuity needed to conquer the manifold challenges of a Mars shot.
From inception through all six of the moon landings that put a dozen men on the moon, the cost of the entire Apollo program was less than 0.3% of the U.S. GDP.
A Mars mission might be three times more costly than the Apollo program. But that would constitute only 0.15% of today’s GDP.
Fifty dollars a month for one year. That’s about what it would take to finance a Mars shot by, say, crowd-funding pledges from one-tenth of the people that would likely watch a live 2030 Mars landing. And that assumes the same share of humanity would watch then as did in 1969. But with today’s ubiquity of video — by 2030, augmented with virtual reality – odds are a greater share of the far bigger population would watch the first human footfall on another planet.
Budgets are necessarily about practicalities. But going to Mars will be no more about practicalities than was the moon shot. Nonetheless, the Apollo program inspired a generation of scientists and engineers with their number graduating from university soaring to unprecedented levels in that decade. Only a tiny fraction of them were, or could have been employed by the space program. The rest? They infused the economy bringing unprecedented intellectual energy to peacetime and earth-bound pursuits – and providing the intellectual horsepower for the businesses that gave birth to Silicon Valley.
President Kennedy said that the moon shot had to be embraced “because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills.” It did. <>