BY: PHILIPPE DE JOCAS
In the 1960s and 70s, moon-mania dominated the public consciousness. In the wake of Apollo 11’s successful round trip to the moon and back, space seemed like a limitless new frontier, rife with potential. Apollo missions 12 through 17 only took this fascination further. Astronauts grew ever more daring and adventurous as the program continued: they drove buggies, propped up flags, posed for photographs, and even played golf. Science fiction authors and technological pundits of the day seemed sure that these early voyages would eventually pave the way for larger and more ambitious expeditions. As Lewis and Clark’s expedition blazed the trail towards the Wild West and permanent westward expansion, eggheads of the time hoped NASA might one day erect permanent moon colonies and lunar cities – the next “wild frontier” for humans to tame.
Except that never happened.
NASA shut down its Apollo mission for a variety of reasons: shrinking budgets and declining public interest remain the two most-cited explanations as to why the Vehicle Assembly Building mothballed its Saturn V fleet. Humans last set foot on the lunar surface 45 years ago – and since that day, our feet have stayed firmly planted on terra firma. Yet this comfortable planetary existence might all change next year as one eccentric billionaire turns his eyes back to the stars.
You might know him for a variety of reasons – his complicated Hyperloop super-train, his unconventional hypothesis that we’re all just characters in an alien computer simulation – but Elon Musk, for all his eccentricities, continually tries to shake up the social order with a combination of his futuristic ideals and not-insignificant bank account. His main company, SpaceX, represents one of the leading innovators in the rapidly growing privatized space market. While NASA continues to maintain old-guard installations such as the International Space Station, companies like SpaceX push the boundaries of space exploration and the technology involved. Thus far, SpaceX’s ambitions remain close to Earth’s orbit, involving projects such as the famous self-landing rocket. Next year, however, SpaceX has publically announced that their next mission is to go where no man has gone before – or, at least, where no man has gone for more than 45 years.
“Space tourism” remains a toy for the uber-rich, but at the same time a wealthy socialite’s desire for space travel may indeed push our entire collective knowledge forward. SpaceX began planning its mission on the behest of two starry-eyed anonymous donors who aim to follow in the footsteps of that fabled cow who jumped over the moon. The vessel won’t actually land on the moon, however – SpaceX plans to launch what’s known as a “moonshot:” rather than making a costly stop on the lunar surface, the 400,000 mile round trip will simply loop round the moon and return to Earth, much like the earliest Apollo missions. However, unlike the old Apollo missions, SpaceX’s ships will carry out the mission autonomously, in the same way that human pilots can trust an autopilot. The development of an onboard computer system capable of handling the calculations involved in lunar travel will prove a boon for future space voyages as we range farther and farther from our planetary cradle.
What’s next for SpaceX when its riders come back from the moon? Musk remains a fierce believer in the prospect of one day spearheading a manned mission to Mars. “This should be a really exciting mission that hopefully gets the world really excited about sending people into deep space again,” he explained on Monday as he unveiled the news. Some may dismiss this as lunacy, but personally, I’m over the moon.