Updates Fridays

“NASA is closer to sending American astronauts to Mars than at any point in our history”

That quote is from NASA administrator Charles Bolden, as reported in a press release that came out this week outlining NASA’s next steps in the journey towards Mars.

No disrespect to Mr. Bolden, but, yeah, I should hope so. I mean, something would have to have gone terribly wrong for NASA to have actually lost progress, right? Saying we’re closer doesn’t mean that we’re close.

But the real point here is that NASA is basically saying, “yes, we really are actively working on this. No, we don’t know when it’s going to happen, because there are a lot of problems to work out first. Like seriously, guys, what we’re talking about here is really, really hard. But we’re working on it.” (That was me paraphrasing the subtext of the press release, and not an actual quote, just in case anyone was unclear.)

I’m not criticizing NASA here. Seriously, I would have been shocked if they had come out with a timeline for an actual mission to Mars, even if the goal date was like 2080. Thrilled, yes, but seriously surprised as well. Because here’s the thing: space travel is really hard, and slow, and dangerous. Sci-fi has pretty much warped people’s expectations for real life space travel to the point where we don’t have a real concept of what’s reasonable any more (sorry!).

But let’s try to put things in perspective for a moment. Do you know how many human beings have walked on the moon? The answer is 12. 12 people, ever. Only 536 people have ever been in space. That’s about how many customers the average Starbucks serves in a day, and they still can’t get my order right.

Let’s think of this another way. The furthest any human being has ever been from Earth is the far side of a high lunar orbit, about 248,655 miles from Earth. Mars, at the closest its orbit will ever be to Earth, is still 33.9 million miles away. That is over 136 times as far as we have ever been. To think about just how far that is, let’s say for a second that you were born and raised in Boston, and have never been further then New York. In order to take a trip that is proportionally as much further, you would have to completely circle the world and then overshoot your origin by some 5 thousand miles, ending up somewhere in Europe. So…it’s a bit further.

(Side note: Google is autocompleting every one of these questions for me. Even the one about Starbucks. For some reason that makes me happy, although I couldn’t for the life of me tell you why. I guess I like that I’m not the only one out there looking up all these little tidbits.)

So, basically NASA wants to go to Mars someday the same way that I want to visit Antarctica. It could probably happen if I really put my mind to it, but it’s not going to be easy, and it’s not happening any time soon.

Still, I love that they are really working on it. I love that one of the steps they are thinking about is possibly establishing a space station in orbit around the moon. I love that before a trip to the Martian surface will be possible, it might be realistic to run an expedition to one of the moons of Mars. I love that they are actively trying to figure out solutions for some of the major problems, like cosmic radiation exposure and fuel synthesization for a return trip. I just love hearing about all of this, and the fact that I will get to continue to hear about it, probably for the rest of my life, but that it will be new and exciting and full of groundbreaking innovations and astounding progress the whole time is just so awesome. Seriously, who needs fiction?

Wait, forget that last part. You need fiction. Specifically, you need to keep reading Half-Man. Don’t forget, okay?