October the 4th came and went with hardly a whimper. I note this not because October 4th is my birthday, but because October 4th 2017 is the 60th anniversary of the Space Age. On that date, in 1957, the Soviets launched Sputnik.
Sixty years before that, in 1897, powered, manned flight was still a dream, but a dream only 6 years away from reality. In 1903, the Wright Brothers flew an airplane for the first time in history. A lot happened in the next 60 years, fueled greatly by two world wars. In 1964, 61 years after the Wright Brothers flew, the Americans launched the SR-71 Blackbird spy plane. That airplane still holds most of the records for powered, manned, air-breathing flight. In just three generations, humanity had conquered the air. The only thing that stands in the way of pushing the flight envelope further is the fragile pilot.
That was the Age of Flight, done and dusted.
The Space Age is now only 60 years old, but the records it has set will stand for centuries… and for some, forever.
For those of you who were not privileged to live through these years, here are some highlights:
During the next 50 years, there were robot missions to Mercury (Mariner), Venus (Magellan), Mars (too many to list), Jupiter (Pioneer, Voyager, Cassini, Gallileo), Saturn (Voyager, Pioneer, Cassini), Uranus and Neptune (Voyager) and Pluto (New Horizons).
2017 was a hell of a year. The Cassini mission to Saturn wrapped up, and New Horizons gave us our first close-ups of Pluto, Enough data to keep planetary astronomers busy for quite some time.
We have left the solar system entirely (Voyager). We have landed on a comet (Rosetta). We have even landed a probe on Titan (Huygens), the only other place in the solar system that has rain (liquid methane, actually… Titan is a bit nippy).
Man will walk on Mars someday. After that, it may be centuries before man walks on another world, largely because robots will go there for us.
Will we ever see another new world close up. Effectively no. In my lifetime, we have seen all the major sites and visited all the main tourist attractions in the Solar System. There is a wealth of new information which we will gather over the coming decades, but it will all be about things we have seen before.
Aside: The Kuiper Belt contains several new dwarf planets and it is possible that probes might be sent to one or more. However, it seems to me unlikely. They would be expensive and I suspect there are better ways to spend the exploratory dollar.
The next new planet we see will not orbit our Sun. The closest extrasolar planet we know of is about ten light years away, and there is little reason to want to look at it in particular. But say we did want a close-up look. Ten light-years is a long way away. 50 trillion miles away. If we built a probe that could get there and send us back snaps, it would be a huge undertaking with little guarantee of success. If that probe could be accelerated to, say, 1% of the speed of light (about 7 million mph!), we would not expect to get a photo back for 1,010 years. Civilizations rise and fall in much less time.
I should tip my hat to computing here. Apollo 11 had an on-board computer that was way less powerful than a modern wrist watch. Since then, computing power has exploded like no other technology in history. Hitting Pluto without computers, both on the ground and on-board the probe, would not have been possible. Computing is having a similar effect on most of the hard sciences
So we are lucky. No other generation in the foreseeable future will ever see the surface of a new world. We have seen dozens and dozens (I am counting moons). We have images of Saturn’s rings, backlit by the sun (totally awesome). We have walked on another world, and seen every world in our solar system, in just 60 years.
When I was a kid, all this was abstraction. The images produced by Cassini are of the kind that makes your spirits soar. We are the luckiest generation!
Lee Moller is a life-long skeptic and atheist and the author of The God Con.