Since then Nasa has announced that in 2016 they will launch InSight, a wonderfully contrived acronym short for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport. But this is far simpler, and far less costly, than Mars Science Laboratory. And vastly cheaper than any manned Mars mission would be. InSight could and should tell us useful things about the geology of Mars, but it is a sign that for some time to come our horizons, and our spacecraft, are shrinking.
With a global economic downturn it’s only reasonable that Nasa and other space programmes are not exempt from cutbacks. But there are plenty who argue that it’s precisely because of all our problems down on Earth we mustn’t let the belt-tightening constrict our imagination in looking beyond it.
On my BBC radio programme, David Southwood – president of the Royal Astronomical Society and until recently director of science and robotic exploration at the European Space Agency Esa – talked about the success of Curiosity and how “this should be the way ahead for exploration in a serious way”. Instead, earlier this year Nasa pulled out of the ambitious joint ESA ExoMars mission. “It’s very frustrating”, he told me, “we’re going to move forward in very small steps”.
Part of our legacy from Neil Armstrong and the Apollo programme is knowing that small steps can sometimes still be giant leaps. Another part of that legacy though is knowing that for all the imagination and inspiration and ingenuity that took us to the Moon, we never followed up on the trail blazed by the 12 men who walked there.
It may be a while before we get people to Mars or even back to the Moon, and much longer still before we go beyond our solar system. Hence projects like the 100 Year Starship Initiative which are working on a century as a realistic deadline by which interstellar flight can be achieved. But however small the steps and – for now – however small the spacecraft, we have to keep edging away from mother Earth. As Voyager 1 heads off beyond our solar system, we need to ensure it’s not too long before it has some company. Even if it’s nothing like the giant spaceships we see on screen.
Picture courtesy of Jemsweb on Flickr