THE FIRST MISSION TO MARS is not just an epic scientific adventure. It is a colossal psychological challenge, as well; one that will test those who are directly involved in that initial pioneering voyage in too many ways to count.
After all, the astronauts on that first mission are signing on for a one-way journey. They will never again return to the Earth, to the planet of their birth, and this fact changes everything right from the outset. It instantly turns this excursion into an emotional acid test of sorts, for these brave adventurers are choosing to live out the rest of their lives on another planet and, in the process, choosing to sacrifice all that they know and love here on Planet Earth.
The magnitude of that choice is almost beyond comprehension.
Yet, there are those who absolutely want nothing more in this life than the opportunity to win a place on board that first spacecraft. They want – with every fiber of their being – to blast off into the greatest scientific adventure ever undertaken and play a role in its success.
This pioneering spirit is indisputably heroic. There can be no doubt about that, for the complexity of the mission and its inherent dangers cannot be overstated.
I recently went to hear a lecture on the first Moon landing that occurred back in 1969 and the number of things that went wrong on that particular mission, it seems, were nothing short of staggering. Just to name a few, for example, the landing module which ferried Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin onto the surface of the Moon had but 27 seconds of fuel left when it touched down. This was due to the craft speeding along at just one and a half seconds too rapidly along the path of its trajectory. This ever-so- slightly-too-swift descent caused the astronauts to overshoot their mark, thus forcing them to rethink their landing with but seconds to spare.
To his horror, as he peered through the craft’s windows, Armstrong caught sight of a boulder strewn expanse which he knew could prove disastrous if he tried to land there. A lander leg might simply snap off if he set down on one of those jagged boulders, thereby ruining his and his colleague’s chances of taking off again, thus leaving the two stranded.
As we know, of course, our heroic astronauts overcame this particular challenge and landed safely, which was a great relief for them and for everyone back in Houston. It is said that every technician present was holding his or her breath in sheer terror during that final minute.
Having landed, the men got down to business, spending a few brief hours on the surface of the Moon and dazzling all of us back home with their antics as we watched the proceedings live on camera.
When it was time to blast off again, however, guess what? The men discovered that the switch to activate the launch engine had broken off at some point along the way.
It was at this juncture that a humble ink pen truly became mightier than the sword, for Buzz Aldrin took that pen and pushed it down into the hole where the switch had snapped off, then managed against all odds to fire up the launch engine, thus allowing the craft to rip skyward and rendezvous with Michael Collins in the command module.
Apollo 11 subsequently returned to the Earth, splashed down and sprang straight into the history books for all time.
We humans love a happy ending and we certainly got one.
Consider this particular fact, however, where the first mission to the Red Planet is concerned: Mars is 140 times further from the Earth than is the Moon.
Think long and hard about that.
Consider how many more challenges there are for the astronauts and technological teams which are now competing to get there first. It took four days to get to the Moon. It will take at least eight months to a year to get to Mars, maybe even longer depending on where the planet is on its orbit at the time.
Taken in totality, the challenges surrounding the first mission to Mars are extraordinarily intriguing to say the least, but once successful this Great Adventure will certainly prove a stunning quantum leap for all of humanity.