(ORDO NEWS) — Since the end of the Apollo mission, hundreds of astronauts have been launched into space, but none of them have traveled more than a few hundred kilometers from Earth.
The most significant differences between the Apollo era and the mid-2020s are the development of computer power, robotics, and the absence of superpower rivalry that can no longer justify huge spending.
Advances in robotic exploration are exemplified by the work of rovers on Mars, where Perseverance navigates independently over rocky terrain with limited guidance from Earth.
Improvements in sensors and artificial intelligence will further allow robots to determine points of interest from which to collect samples for delivery to Earth.
Within the next decades, robotic exploration of the surface of Mars could become almost completely autonomous.
Likewise, engineering projects such as building a radio telescope on the far side of the moon would not require human intervention, they could be done entirely by robots.
Robots could also explore Jupiter, Saturn and their moons at no extra cost, since travel of several years is not a problem for a robot.
The Apollo astronauts took high risks and pushed technology to the limit. By comparison, short trips to the moon in the 2020s, despite the $90 billion cost of the Artemis program, will seem almost routine.
It will take something more ambitious, like landing on Mars, to generate public enthusiasm on the scale of Apollo.
But such a mission, including provisions and rocketry for the return flight, could very well cost NASA a trillion dollars a dubious expense when we’re dealing with the climate crisis and poverty on Earth.
The already significant cost difference between human and robotic missions to the Moon will increase significantly on any long-term stay.
Going to Mars, hundreds of times farther away than the Moon, would not only put astronauts at much greater risk, it would also make providing emergency assistance much less feasible.
Even astronautical enthusiasts admit that it could be almost two decades before the first crewed flight to Mars.
Another key difference between the Apollo era and today is the emergence of a strong private sector. Private companies compete with NASA, so risky trips to Mars funded by billionaires and private sponsors can be done by volunteers.
Given that human spaceflight beyond low orbit is likely to shift entirely to privately funded, high-risk missions, Artemis is likely to be a swan song rather than the beginning of a new era for Apollo.
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