“The saddest aspect of life right now is that science gathers knowledge faster than society gathers wisdom.”
― Isaac Asimov
2020 has been a terrible year for humanity with the global pandemic of Covid 19 that has ripped through the worlds’ population leaving 2.5 million dead. But science has once again come to the aid of humanity with the development of a vaccine against Covid 19 with high efficacy. Its deployment is undoubtedly putting humanity on a road to the return to some normality. It will not eradicate the virus but it will seriously curtail its transmission and high mortality rates. Covid 19 is something we must live with but our scientific community has risen to the challenge once again and proved itself. We owe them.
Science itself has been under serious attack from those who, not only deny its seriousness — and relevance — but deny the very existence of Covid 19 — as it has been under attack for decades by those who deny climate change. But science has responded. And responded with a successful life-saving vaccine. And now to start 2021 off in a way that will hopefully continue, science has produced another great success. This one, may well be, even more important, than the vaccine for Covid 19. How could anything be more important than a vaccine that is halting an invisible, death-dealing enemy? Well how about the exploration of the Solar System, colonisation of Mars, search for exoplanets and the diaspora of humanity into the Universe? Only time will tell. But science is back.
On February 18th 2021 the Perseverance rover successfully landed in the Jezero Crater on Mars. It had launched on July 30th 2020 and had taken 7 months to reach its destination where it descended and landed according to plan. A stunning achievement and more so when you know how many human exploratory devices have not reached their intended target of the Mars surface.
The Perseverance rover is a wonder. A combination of both engineering and science. An automated machine built to explore the planet and conduct scientific experiments as it traverses the terrain. Fully automated and powered. A robot programmed to be an extension of the human mind and the body. Remote exploration of the surfaces of moons and planets of our solar system is now here and all from the comfort of a chair on Earth.
Perseverance is full of scientific equipment that has been designed to investigate for life that may once have existed upon Mars. But for me the most exciting experiment aboard the rover is a device that can make oxygen from the abundance of Carbon Dioxide in the atmosphere of Mars. Carbon Dioxide makes up 97% of its atmosphere, with only 0.13% being oxygen. On Earth it is 21%. The device is called MOXIE — The Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment.
MOXIE is for the moment only a Test Model and is roughly the size of a car battery. When successful the idea will be to scale up the device. This will then provide a source of oxygen production on a scale large enough to provide fuel for a return trip from Mars when the planned human expedition arrives. I assume it could also provide the necessary amounts for possible long term habitats upon Mars in the foreseeable future. One question I do have is to why there are not scaled-up versions of MOXIE on Earth now capturing Carbon Dioxide and turning it into oxygen? Is it due to the power required when up-scaling a device? Well NASA?
The Perseverance landing was for me more important than the Moon landing by Apollo 11 on July 20th 1969. The Moon landing by American astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin was a show of technological and political superiority by America during the Cold War. Its purpose was unashamedly patriotic and chauvinistic. The scientific achievement merely a by-product of the Apollo mission. Yet here on Mars right now we see the nadir of human engineering and scientific achievement and the politics nowhere to be seen. Hallelujah.
Science and engineering together has not just achieved a viable long term remote exploration of a planet in our Solar System it has laid the foundations for remote exploration of all of the Solar System and — most exciting of all — the exploration by man of the Universe. This is genuinely that giant leap for mankind that Armstrong incorrectly attributed as he stepped down in black and white from the Eagle. He meant to say one small step for mankind. But this is now that giant leap.
There will be a manned mission to Mars. And there will be a human colony on Mars. These are not now the stuff of science-fiction. The MOXIE makes this inevitable. But even more significant is the remote nature of the Perseverance rover mission. Man does not have to necessarily travel in space to explore the wonders of the Universe. It can be done without the loss of life that this would entail. Space is dangerous. The human body is not compatible with long-term space travel.
But of course there are many who will only get excited when a human walks or rather bounces on Mars. Yet getting a manned mission to Mars and back will be the riskiest undertaking ever undertaken by humanity. The only analogy that comes close are the Voyages of Discovery in the 15th and 16th century and the search for the Northwest Passage in terms of the mental anxiety and the physical danger. Add to this the peril of crews manning the first submarines. Combine all of these and you are just getting near the risk levels of the first manned mission to Mars.
One must wonder whether letting robots do the dangerous stuff for us isn't where the future of space exploration should be. Period. Should we really be asking a group of humans (even if they volunteer) to risk their lives to be the first human on Mars? Or is there just something in the human spirit that just cannot be denied its purpose and intent? Just play Bowie’s ‘Life on Mars’ followed by his ‘Heroes’ and you get the idea.
I would be very happy to see machines exploring the Universe; for is that not a mark of the true space-faring advanced civilisation? One that values life above all else. Whether that be new lands to discover or new worlds to colonise. Our history suggests that we would be better sending machines and robots on our Voyages of Discovery than our religious fanatics, Conquistadors and privateers who have been knighted.