by Mary Hrovat
When I watched the 2019 documentary on Apollo 11, it carried me back not to the summer of 1969, when it happened, but to the mid-1980s, when I was an undergrad. I was eight when Apollo 11 launched; of course I was aware of the space program and the moon landings, but I don’t have any memories of everyone gathering around to watch those first steps on another world. My parents weren’t particularly interested, and I don’t remember being caught by the spirit of the times myself.
It wasn’t until shortly before I began an undergraduate program in astrophysics, in the mid-1980s, that I started to take a serious interest in space exploration. I read everything I could find on the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs; I was particularly interested in first-hand accounts by the astronauts themselves. Carrying the Fire, by Michael Collins, still stands out in my mind as the very best of these.
I was gripped by the idea of being out in space and seeing Earth from space or the moon from orbit. Sometimes when I was out at night under a dark starry sky, I thought about Collins’s descriptions of his solo passes behind the moon, during which he was out of contact with Earth. I imagined seeing the blackness of space and untwinkling stars out one window of the spacecraft and the impenetrable darkness of the moon in shadow out the other.
I spent hours with a huge book called Mission to Earth: Landsat Views the World, a NASA publication full of early Landsat photographs of Earth. Each image is accompanied by geographical and geological information, and I would imagine having this kind of satellite-eye view for myself, looking down at the landforms below and understanding how they formed. I visited Spring Mill State Park in southern Indiana, where Gus Grissom’s Gemini 3 capsule (Molly Brown) is on display. I was thrilled to be in the presence of this compact machine that had carried two people out into space.
During my undergrad years, I considered the possibility of applying to work as an astronaut after I had earned a PhD. I was most interested in being a mission specialist working with a scientific payload. Sally Ride had studied astronomy before she became an astronaut, and so had George Nelson, a shuttle astronaut who had helped bring the Solar Maximum Mission satellite into the shuttle’s payload bay for repairs in spring of 1984. I met Nelson when I was a research assistant one summer at a solar observatory, and he gave me some tips about useful skills to have if I wanted to apply. These dreams never came to fruition. I’m not sure what my odds of flying on a scientific mission would have been even if I had gotten my PhD and made it into the astronaut program. At any rate, I’m happy with the choices I made.
I didn’t look any further than Earth orbit at the time because that was (and still is) the farthest anyone could go into space. Apollo 17, the only Apollo mission to carry a scientist (geologist Harrison Schmitt), visited the moon in December 1972. After that, the program was more or less over, except for the Apollo–Soyuz mission in 1975. Three missions originally scheduled as Apollo 18, 19, and 20 were cancelled.
Very early in January of 1986, I visited the Kennedy Space Center. I was excited at all I saw, and I got a little misty-eyed when I saw mission control for the Apollo launches. But one thing that really stayed with me was the memory of a Saturn V lying on its side on the ground. (It was probably left over from one of the canceled missions.) It was an impressive display because as you walked alongside it, and then got a good view of the five rocket nozzles at the bottom, you became very aware of its size and majesty. However, it was also melancholy. That rocket was made to go to the moon, and here it was lying on the ground in Florida.
At the time, I hoped that the US would someday start carrying humans beyond Earth orbit again. I read about space colonies and lunar bases, both science fiction and more or less serious proposals. I agreed with the letter and spirit of Konstantin Tsiolkovsky’s words: “Earth is the cradle of humanity, but one cannot live in a cradle forever.” It seemed obvious to me that humans were an exploring species and would one day leave the home planet.
Some of the early uncrewed missions had names that evoke a spirit of adventure; among them, some were named using nautical terms as a tribute to humans’ sea-faring explorations of the past: Explorer, Pioneer, Ranger, Surveyor, Mariner, Viking. These missions demonstrated key capabilities (for example, reaching escape velocity and leaving Earth orbit, or making a soft landing on the moon) or sent back images of possible landing sites on the moon for crewed missions. There was a feeling of newness and beginning to many of these names. I was sure that, even though the vision of the 1980s for human space travel seemed constricted compared to that of the 1960s, the promise of those names would someday be fulfilled.
In some way I can’t explain now, space seemed to be my home, or the home of humans in general. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say that it seemed to be my new context or setting. My fascination with space accompanied an extension of my thinking beyond my parents’ narrative of God and a fall and divine salvation. My view of the planet—its age, its history, its context—and our place on it shifted gradually over those years until I saw humans not as being made in God’s image but as a naturally arising form of life, one that was capable of understanding the universe. More personally, in the context of space, I could see myself as simply a living being, a bipedal carbon-based life form, free of the negative labels that the people I knew applied to ex-Catholics and to divorced mothers whose children didn’t live with them.
Watching Apollo 11 a few weeks ago brought back many memories of my early enthusiasm. The video was stunning, and it was a wonderful experience to relive the mission from a relatively new viewpoint. I still see the Apollo program and the trailblazers Mercury and Gemini as being among the greatest adventures humans have ever known. But seeing the film also brought home to me how much my views of space exploration have changed.
The documentary includes clips from at least one of President Kennedy’s speeches about going to the moon; these clips reminded me that the space race of the 1960s was essentially a Cold War power play. The point was to seize a perceived tactical advantage rather than to do any serious exploration or even set the stage for a human presence in space. It’s possible that geopolitical forces were the only thing that could have motivated the U.S. to fund and carry out such a massively expensive project, but that’s part of the reason I’m no longer enthusiastic about the prospect of humans in space.
The low profile of women at NASA during Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo also bothers me much more than it used to. Fourteen years after Apollo, it was possible for me to be excited about the first flight of a woman astronaut and the presence of other women astronauts, but now I know that there were qualified women pilots who tried to enter the Mercury program but never got the chance. Now the missed opportunities loom larger than the belated inclusion.
In addition, my views on crewed and uncrewed spaceflight have shifted. In the last 25 years or so, robotic missions have been incredibly successful and have shown us so many things that we might never have been able to observe using crewed flight. The Mariner, Viking, and Voyager missions inspired me when I was an undergrad; I loved photos of Jupiter and Saturn and Mars as much as I loved images of Earth from space.
The Galileo mission to Jupiter, which launched in 1989 and arrived late in 1995, marked the beginning of a new era of robotic exploration. In the following years, NASA and other space agencies expanded our horizons tremendously. I’ve followed rovers and orbiters at Mars, the Cassini mission to Saturn, and two splendid missions to Jupiter (Galileo, which ended in 2003, and Juno, which is still in operation). Most of these spacecraft operated well beyond their designed lifetimes. There’s also the New Horizons mission to Pluto and its follow-up flyby of a Kuiper Belt object, and several missions to asteroids and comets.
I still cherish a small poster sent to me in the late 1980s by the Planetary Society; it shows an image of Comet Halley taken by a probe called Giotto. But a later probe (Stardust) has returned a sample of a comet dust to Earth, and another (Philae, part of the European Space Agency’s Rosetta mission) has landed on a comet. Despite a number of failures (most notably Mars Polar Lander and Mars Climate Orbiter), robotic exploration has been an impressive success.
Robotic spaceflight has in fact fulfilled some of the promise of the early space missions. (In retrospect, this is no surprise. Despite the rhetoric about opening up a new frontier in space, for many people the first moon landing was the intended end point, not a beginning.) Robotic sensors have so many advantages over humans that it’s hard for me to see why humans need to be present in the flesh when we explore new worlds.
The most fundamental change in my views, though, is that I no longer see space as a potential home for humans. I don’t think we should colonize the moon or Mars, mine the asteroids, or build space colonies.
I’ve learned a lot more about the effects of humans on the environment, and I think it would be wrong to transport ourselves and our life-support equipment to other worlds. We can’t be trusted with the fate of a planet, even the one on which we evolved and where you would think that sustainable existence would be easiest. Humans haven’t always lived within their planetary budget, instead choosing to accumulate scars and damage to the natural world (an overdraft for future generations) by resource extraction or land use at any cost to the environment. I don’t think it’s inevitable that we act this way, but it’s a common enough pattern that I think we should learn to move beyond it here on Earth rather than spread it into the solar system.
In addition, I think it’s unrealistic to imagine humans living in any numbers anyplace but Earth. The challenges of living in space stations or on other planets are, if not insurmountable, then not worth surmounting. Arguments about preventing human extinction, if worst should come to worst, or mining the essentially boundless resources of space are not persuasive. I can’t believe in boundless growth any more.
The thing that now seems to offer the greatest potential to us as a species is learning more about Earth and the other lives we share it with, and about how to live here with each other on the only home we have.
You can see more of my work at MaryHrovat.com.