I was two years old when Neil Armstrong walked on the surface of the Moon. When an estimated half a billion people were watching mankind’s giant leap – a miraculous feat of science, engineering and bravery – I was probably asleep (or bawling).
I’ve grown up in the Space Age, never conscious of a time when humans couldn’t leave Earth (well, a few of them anyway – for a finite time), but my parents and grandparents, let alone the generations before them, probably thought the idea of walking on the Moon an impossible dream.
Now we’re talking colonies on Mars and the tantalizing notion of habitable planets beyond our solar system. Much like the Moon 50 or 60 years ago, it all seems far beyond reach.
But human beings are hardwired to explore and usually make it to their destination, or find ones they weren’t expecting. Throughout history, people have taken risks to explore the unknown, and through a combination of ancient wisdom and ingenuity have reached most places on their own planet that can sustain human life – in order to settle, find new land, map, conquer, explore, survive, research, or profit. An intrepid few have even made it to the extremes of Earth that can’t sustain human life – from the floor of the Mariana Trench to the summit of Everest, and from North Pole to South. It seems we’re helplessly drawn to cold and inhospitable places.
Is it possible we can set up colonies on Mars and other planets yet to be discovered? The explorers of the past could never have foreseen where we are today. We can’t foresee the future either, but the compulsion to explore and learn defines us as a species. NASA has spoken of people orbiting Mars by 2030, shortly followed by a landing, with commercial enterprises predicting they will do it sooner. Whoever gets there first, the moment we become an interplanetary species will be watched live by billions of astonished people on Earth. And this time, I’ll be awake for it.