The 20th century bore witness to the Space Race – an era in which the Soviet Union engaged the United States in a high-stakes and high-cost competition for technological superiority.

In less than a decade, humanity went from having never left our home on Earth, to hearing the immortal words of Neil Armstrong as he set foot on the surface of the Moon, 384,400 km away.

At the time, few believed it would stop there, and many expected that NASA, Roscosmos and other space programs would quickly venture beyond the Moon and establish an everlasting presence of humanity across the stars. Yet, since the crew of Apollo 17 returned to Earth from the surface of the Moon almost 50 years ago, our endeavours to explore the solar system and beyond have ground to a halt.

With the notion of America’s global leadership and technological might firmly asserted by the success of the Apollo missions (and a decline in public interest as the novelty of space wore off), NASA’s funding rapidly dwindled after the Cold War, and in recent years the US’ efforts in space have ironically relied heavily on Russian rockets to shuttle astronauts, parts and equipment to the International Space Station (ISS).

Though our understanding of the tiny plot of space we share with our planetary neighbours has increased dramatically in recent years thanks to the various exploratory probes we have sent into space, a human being has never ventured out of low-earth orbit since 1972.

Now though, the human race is making preparations to journey once again beyond the orbit of the Earth – this time for good.

The Artemis Programme

The Artemis programme is being billed as the long-awaited next step in humanity’s aspiration to explore our universe.

Operating under the directive of placing the next man and the first woman on the Moon by 2024, the Artemis programme aims to not only to leave human footprints on the Moon once again, but to establish an orbital presence around the Moon – a ‘Gateway’ craft similar to the International Space Station that will constitute a habitable refuelling hub, logistics outpost and transition point to the lunar surface for future missions and exploration.  

According to the Artemis Programme Overview, NASA aims to have a long-term presence established on the Moon by the end of the decade, working with international space agencies and commercial partners to usher in the next-generation of space exploration with the Artemis Base Camp.

Testing is currently underway for the Space Launch System that will be responsible for sending the Artemis II crewed mission to orbit the Moon in 2023, followed by the Moon landing of the Artemis III in 2024. If NASA can maintain this aggressive timeline, humans will return to lunar surface in less than four years, paving the way for the ‘Gateway’ orbital habitat and the Artemis lunar base camp to be deployed by 2030.

A (Manned) Mission to Mars

While humanity first explored the surface of the Moon over 50 years ago, the prospect of successfully placing a human being on Mars is a far taller order.

Mars is a much greater distance from the Earth – a staggering 401 million km at its farthest. This presents a series of challenges in terms of the resources, fuel and time required to successfully transport a crew to the planet.

Landing on the Martian surface also presents a considerable challenge. Whilst we have developed effective techniques for landing on the Moon and re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere, a landing craft for Mars would have to combine the approach of heatshields and parachutes we use to safely re-enter Earth’s much denser atmosphere, with the retro-rockets and other technologies used to make a lunar landing in virtually no atmosphere.

NASA has intentions for a manned mission to Mars during the 2030s, and aims to capitalise on the knowledge and technological advancements that will come out of the Artemis Programme to develop a viable plan for a crewed flight to the Martian surface.

However, the rise of the private space industry in recent years has seen several private companies accelerate the development of technology for space exploration, with entities such as SpaceX displaying cutting-edge rockets and capable machinery that will likely be instrumental in the journey to Mars. CEO of SpaceX, Elon Musk, stated in December 2020 that it is likely that a manned mission will fly to Mars “in about six years from now”. Musk is reluctant to give specific dates or timelines for the journey to Mars, but has publicly stated his intentions to establish a Martian colony and make the human race “a multi-planet species and a spacefaring civilisation”.

Why space exploration matters

There is much debate over whether our efforts to revisit the Moon, colonise Mars and explore deep space are worthwhile. The provision of funds to NASA and other space programs alongside the rapid growth of private space companies leaves a bad taste in the mouth of some, who argue that the vast amount of time, money and resources reserved for space exploration should be directed towards solving the problems and inequalities that plague humanity in the present day, here on Earth.

While repurposing the resources reserved for space exploration could perhaps help to solve problems faced by humanity right now, doing so would effectively mean stunting the long-term development, and even prosperity, of our species.

Apart from the fact that a wide variety of our modern technologies, appliances and even every-day conveniences have been developed from the technological advancements and discoveries made in pursuit of space travel (CAT scans, water-filtration systems, air purifiers, laser eye surgery, artificial limbs and memory foam to name a few), remaining exclusively on Earth would mean restricting ourselves from a wealth of possibilities.

In his 2019 BBC documentary ‘The Planets’, Professor Brian Cox delivers a simple, yet impassioned explanation for why our commitment to space exploration is so vital for the human race:

“Focusing entirely on [the Earth] would be a profound mistake. It would mean that we’ve taken the decision to sit huddled in a tiny corner of the solar system, wondering what we’re doing here. It would mean that we’ve taken the decision to fight amongst ourselves for ever more precious resources, confined below a thin shell of air on a small rock, rather than following the three-dimensional path marked out by the lights in the night. We live in a solar system of wonders… A system of limitless resources, limitless beauty, and limitless potential. A system that we’ve only just begun to explore, in a journey that has already rewarded us with so much.”

The basis of our species’ success and prosperity is not only evolution, but exploration. Over hundreds of thousands of years, humans journeyed across the globe, discovering new territories, resources and ultimately creating the civilisation that we know today. Space exploration is simply the next step in that collective journey, and one without which humanity is destined to reach its end on a solitary rock, floating in a tiny corner of a vast, wondrous universe.