John Herschel Glenn passed away recently at age 95. He was the first American to orbit the Earth, on board Friendship 7 in February 1962, and before that, a much decorated war veteran, serving as a fighter pilot in both World War II and in Korea, finally retiring as a colonel in 1965. As if that wasn’t enough, after leaving NASA, he won a US Senate seat, representing his home state of Ohio, and served for 25 years.
John Glenn was certainly a hero. To some extent all astronauts are: what they do is so dangerous and requires such skill and dedication that few of us could qualify. As a planetary scientist, I am often asked if I had any ambition to fly in space: I always say no, I’d be terrified, especially of the launch. I have watched quite a few of those monster firecrackers take off, sometimes with my scientific experiments on board, and there is no way I would ever sit on top of one myself. I did once get the chance to stick my head inside the Apollo module that landed on the Moon, but that was in the factory that built them on Long Island, New York, in the 1960s.
I was a student at the time, on a vacation course run by NASA. Later, I got to meet a couple of space shuttle pilots, and just last week I was there when Tim Peake came to the annual Appleton Space Conference held at the Harwell Science and Innovation Campus near Oxford. He was so, so impressive: not only had he risked his life on a trip fraught with danger, and performed complex tasks and experiments impeccably on the Space Station, he spoke about it all with a freshness and enthusiasm that made it impossible to believe that he must have given the same talk at least a thousand times. If he can inspire an old veteran like me, who has been involved in sending experiments to every planet in the Solar System, then youngsters just starting out with stars in their eyes must really be enchanted.
But where will they go? To a new permanent base on the Moon? To be one of the first humans on Mars? Even further afield, to the ocean worlds of Europa or Enceladus, where our Oxford-built instruments now orbit? The future of manned space flight is very uncertain. It is dangerous; it is expensive; it may even be useless in the sense of providing practical returns that justify, in terms of hard cash, the vast expense of going there with fragile, non-disposable payloads of human beings, most of whom would rather like to come back. Robots are tougher, and in many ways more capable, if rather less resourceful when something unexpected happens. Best of all, they don’t mind being left out there when their job is done; that, and their modest requirements for life support, make them a lot less expensive than astronauts like Glenn and those who follow him.
People ask me when humans will land on Mars. Will it actually happen during the lifetime of any of us, even the youngest? Will it ever happen, or will we succumb to war, overpopulation, or climate change, first? I tell them that it is as much up to them as it is to me, in fact I should be asking them. If the funding was there, we scientists would send manned missions to Mars like a shot. Most of us would not dream of going in person, if I am anything to go by, and I think I am; we’d have to find new people with the courage and vision of John Glenn to make the trip. Fortunately, they do exist. But whether to go is not really up to the scientists and astronauts. It is the politician and the taxpayer who will decide, by approving the expenditure, measured in hundreds of billions of whatever currency you care to name. We know how to do it technically, pretty much; but is it worth it, do we have the will to press ahead? How do you put a price on exploration, when you don’t know what you are going to find? And what will be John Glenn’s legacy, in the long term?
Featured image credit: International Space Station by Skeeze. CC0 public domain via Pixabay.