Rodney Brooks

Robots, AI, and other stuff

What If There Were Men On The Moon Today?

I was sitting on the beach looking at the full moon above. I looked through my binoculars to see more detail. And then it occurred to me that I could see on that surface every single location that humans had landed on the surface of a body in space that was not Earth. Six times, stretching from 48 years ago to 45 years ago.

That brought to mind this iconic photograph taken by Michael Collins during the Apollo 11 mission. He was alone in the Command Module, and visible in the foreground is the Lunar Lander with Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong in it. In the background is Earth. This makes Michael Collins the only person who has ever lived who was not inside the frame of this photo. The only person not included.

This got me to thinking. What if, horribly, one of the six Lunar Modules that landed on the Moon with two astronauts on board, had failed to take off or failed to reach orbit for docking with the Command Module. If that had happened, every time we look at the Moon today we would see a grave site. It would be the most visible grave site in the world, visible from every place on the surface of the Earth.

How would that have changed the way we viewed mankind’s place in the Universe? Would we have seen exploration as a failure and something we should not do any more? Or would we have been inspired to try harder and not let 45 years pass without a return to space faring?

When we return to the Moon, or go to Mars, we will do it with more intent to stay longer than the six times we visited the Moon. Then we only landed for between 24 and 72 hours. When we spend a longer time, and with more people, on the surface of another body eventually there will be deaths. We saw that with the Shuttle program, and the Soviet Union had their own deaths in their programs. But if the exploration, and indeed settling, is permanent then I don’t think we will have the same empty feeling looking up at the Moon and Mars, as we would today if there had been an Apollo tragedy on the surface of the Moon.

When we go to the Moon, or Mars, the next time, let’s make it for real.


8 comments on “What If There Were Men On The Moon Today?”

  1. I am for space exploration and eventual colonies on both the Moon and Mars. However I think if – after Apollo 13 – there had been any deaths then the whole project might have been cancelled as the US public were already losing interest (well if you’ve seen one Moon landing you’ve seen them all)

    As far as know there (barring any coverups) there are no dead astronauts actually in space – but had there been men stranded – and eventually dying – on the Moon’s surface then it would have had a deep affect on the World’s collective conscience.

    But deaths that occurred during – for example – exploration of the South Pole – didn’t lead to every man and every woman sitting at home too afraid to go out – many saw it as an act of courage which inspired them.

    So eventually even if there had been any further deaths (remembering Apollo 1) I think man would have been eager to start exploring again after a while.

    But before we can start whizzing around our own solar system there are still many technical hurdles to overcome – not least harmful radiation.

    However scientists are at work on the problems of radiation with one idea proposing a superconducting magnetic shield. Also – of course – Mars and the Moons of the gas giants are a long way away. Current rocket technology can get us to these destinations but you’d need to take an extensive (digital) library of good books to prevent boredom.

    My hopes are that one day we’ll crack Nuclear fusion which could lead to high speed plasma driven spacecraft. If this happens our solar system would open right up making trips to Mars quite routine and cheap enough to allow a small colony to be set up (they would have their own reactors).

    There might even be tourists setting off for a low orbit joy ride around the Moon – with the more adventurous (and wealthy) opting for a ‘fairly’ safe landing and excursion on a lunar rover.

    I can’t see us landing on Mars much before 2040 – and that’ll be using conventional rocket technology. Perhaps by 2095 we’ll have advanced plasma drives which could lead to the first colony by 2130. I know this all seems a long way away but we haven’t been to the moon for 45 years and a hundred years or so isn’t very long in terms of the Universe.

    Looking further ahead – if the idea of sending micro probes out to Proxima Centurai actually works and finds a habitable planet – we might then aim future probes at the newly discovered Trappist 1 solar system – a mere 39.46 light years away.

    Now they’re hoping to use giant lasers to accelerate these probes to around 20% of the speed of light – very very fast – but as they will only weigh a few grams – not much room for a human crew.

    Just as a reminder of interstellar distances – Voyager 1 – travelling at around 39,000 mph would take around 678,546 years to reach the Trappist I star. If man is ever to get to these distant places it would require a massive leap in technology – but many believe that we will never leave our solar system.

    Perhaps one day we may understand what is required to cover these vast distances and eventually develop the technology to do it. 2245 anybody?

    1. I would hope that giant domes would eventually be constructed landscaped with vegetation.

      There are many raw materials available for building on Mars – aluminium, iron, magnesium, and titanium so I’m sure large structures could be built.

      Perhaps in around 90 years time we’ll have the robot technology available to build the foundations of giant habitats in advance ready for the initial colonists.

      Small habitats would just never work for a long or permanent stay as you’re alluding to.

  2. I have to confess that as I have reached middle age and realized that the technology will not be available or affordable for safe travel to other planets within my lifetime, I have lost a degree of interest in human space exploration. I look forward mostly to the discoveries made through telescopes (planet 9 anyone?) and with robotic spacecraft, which are affordable and nearly without risk. I still think human space exploration and settlement are desirable long term goals to insulate our species from extinction but have difficulty investing much spirit or enthusiasm into the process. It’s an endeavor that has proven very difficult, risky, and expensive, and impatience and discouragement have worn me down. I think it was around the time of the Columbia accident that I lost interest. I have a small amount of hope that some of the private sector developments will soon deliver cheap, reliable human space flight, soon probably being decades but possibly still within my lifetime, but until then . . . . long live the robots.

  3. I consider it a miracle that nobody did die on the Moon on one of the Apollo missions, given the level of knowledge about the surface conditions and the risks that were taken. The Apollo 11 astronauts themselves put the odds of getting home at 50/50. On the other hand, I don’t think it would have necessarily changed very much – they did have the arguably more demoralizing deaths on Earth of the Apollo 1 crew, in what should have been a mundane test compared to a Moon landing.

    It’s amazing to me that the only people to have died in space, technically, are the early Soyuz crew that died just prior to re-entry because of loss of air pressure in the capsule. Other than that, all of the loss of life has been inside the atmosphere. That’s quite an achievement, given Moon landings, Apollo 13, fires and crashes on the Mir station, fluid leaks inside space suits, 17 years of occupation of the ISS etc. Heck, in 17 years of living on the ISS, even a freak illness might have killed someone.

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