In the wake of Neil Armstrong’s death I’ve been seeing a lot of “we failed Neil” handwringing because no country has yet built a moonbase or sent men to Mars or, well, whatever space-related thingy the writer particularly wants us to do that we have not yet done (granted, that is most everything, since we have done so little and there is so much space out there). It’s certainly understandable to want more space exploration. But that doesn’t make the sentiment not wrong.
Most of the handwringing crowd is complaining that we aren’t doing more manned missions into space, but this is a perfect example of the Green Lantern Theory as applied to science. We aren’t doing lengthy manned missions into space for numerous reasons. Human beings, for one, are meant to live in Earth gravity, and spending too much time in zero-gee does bad things to the human body (including, it appears, the degradation of eyesight), and the missions people are proposing would involve spending way more time than anybody has yet spent weightless. We also haven’t come up with a good way to protect astronauts from the effects of cosmic radiation on a long-term basis, which is kind of important if we don’t want them to get cancer (or just die, in the case of gamma rays). Maybe we could make our spaceships be giant lead spheres, but that seems somewhat impractical. So that’s another problem on the list that we haven’t solved yet.
And then, of course, there’s all the dinky logistical stuff – the problems which aren’t sexy to solve, like cosmic ray protection or artificial gravity, but the basic stuff like “how do we put enough food on the spaceship so that the Marstronauts don’t starve to death? How do we put enough fuel on the spaceship so they can get back?” A Mars mission is two years’ worth of food and fuel. That is a lot of stuff. Simply getting it into orbit is going to be difficult.
So my point is this: these problems exist, and science people are indeed trying to work on them. The fact that we have not yet surmounted them is not a failure to the spirit of Neil Armstrong (who, as an engineer with a reputation for hardheaded practicality, knew damn well that there at least had to be a solid chance of success for a thing to be worth doing). As we go further out and advance further along, things get more complex. That’s just how science is.