Nobody born since 1935 has stepped on another world. Neil Armstrong’s death is a reminder that we have been screwing about for too long now - it’s time to go to Mars.
Nobody born after 1935 has walked on the moon. Nobody since the nineteen thirties. The children of eight decades since have still not made it back there, or reached further to touch the red dust of Mars.
Neil Armstrong’s death means that the first man on the Moon will never meet the first man on Mars. It is a chilling reminder that we are unlikely to reach another planet in the lifetimes of any of the surviving Apollo astronauts. It may not happen in my parents’ lifetimes. I’m beginning to lose faith that it will even happen in my lifetime. How have we allowed this to happen?
Sometimes I think about how far I’ve traveled compared to my distant ancestors. In the last twelve months alone I’ve flown around 25,000 miles - once around the Earth - covering more ground in a single year than most of the humans who have ever lived did in their lifetimes, scurrying around their local villages and regions. I’ve always assumed that my travels would seem similarly unimpressive to my star-hopping descendants.
As a child of the eighties, that’s what I learned to expect, that each generation travels further and faster and better than the last. By the time I was a grown-up we would be whizzing around in bullet trains and hypersonic jets, and I’d honeymoon with my wife on the sandy shores of the Sea of Tranquility. All music would be synth pop, and hemlines would have risen to somewhere around the belly-button.
I’ll be 31 years old next month, and pretty soon I’ll have to come to terms with the fact that I am a grown-up. Born just after the first Shuttle mission, I find myself trapped in the world of First Great Western trains, flying on aircraft designed in the sixties, watching my generation struggle to bear the brunt of an economic crisis, trying to find sense in a culture where Big Brother losers are given more press coverage than Olympic athletes.
There was so much optimism in my old sci-fi books, but now all we seem to hear are people droning on about how shit things are, how much shitter they’re going to get, and whose fault it is that they got shit in the first place: the tedious drumbeat of the cowardly and insidious ‘Broken Britain' mentality. I'm probably as guilty of that as anyone: it's easier to shout at things than it is to stand up and do something about them.
I’m angry though, I really am. The science fiction books and TV shows I devoured in the 1980s promised me a world – no, worlds – of exploration: spaceships and aliens whizzing around a galaxy of possibilities where anything could happen in the next half hour. Now, in 2012, I have to face the possibility that I could live to be an old man in a world where the only memories our civilization has of planetary exploration are a few grainy, black and white images, carefully preserved from a century before; dusty footprints and scraps of metal abandoned in a place we never go.
Well I’ll be buggered if I’m going to let go of the childish things: awe and ambition; eating cookies in bed; imagining sleek space ships and lush alien worlds, or green-skinned alien goddesses come to whisk me up into the night sky, free to drift among infinite jewels spinning slowly in the dark. Some nights I catch myself staring up at the moon, wondering if I’ll ever reach it. And guess what: I still believe I can.
I don’t give a damn if robotic probes make more sense. I don’t give a damn about the views of academic committees or health and safety. I don’t give a damn about the supposed costs – money spent on space exploration is invested in science and technology right here on Earth, and has paid for itself many times over. There’s no point having a great civilization if all we do is sit on our little rock and just survive.
Curiosity made us what we are: the instinct that makes us click an interesting link on Twitter is the same force that built our cities and hospitals and carried us on rocket ships to the moon. It may not be rational, but we didn’t get where we are by being an entirely rational species – we did it by trying things, and failing pretty much most of the time. It’s time for someone to step up and show us all that we still have that drive, that when we have the guts to unleash that curiosity - and the guts to fail - we can still achieve greatness. Neil Armstrong's death is wake-up call, a challenge to our generation. We can go to Mars, and it doesn't need a miracle: we just need to decide to go.
by Martin Robbins @mjrobbins