The Apollo missions that sent humans on their first journeys to the moon still rank among the craziest, scariest and most successful adventures in human history.
But that was 40 years ago. After those triumphs, NASA followed up with three decades of the space shuttle, a kind of space truck that drove its milk route around and around Earth. Fairly or not, the space shuttle rarely captured the public's imagination, except in two fiery moments of tragedy.
So what should the U.S. space program do next, especially now that the shuttle program is ending?
The answer might be found in the title of Pat Duggins' new book — Trailblazing Mars: NASA's Next Giant Leap.
As Duggins writes, Mars has always captured our imaginations, fueled by the astronomers who believed in Martian canals, or writers such as Edgar Rice Burroughs, or even cartoon characters such as Marvin the Martian.
In the years of Apollo, when America seemingly proved it could do anything, it was easy to think a journey to Mars was coming up next. "I thought we'd be on Mars in another five or 10 years," recalls Scott Horowitz, who was a grade school boy in Philadelphia at that time, and later became a space shuttle astronaut. "It was the next obvious step, and then we stopped."
Duggins, who covered more than 100 space shuttle missions as a reporter for the NPR-affiliated station in Orlando and now works for Alabama Public Radio, shows a Mars journey will not be as easy as the youthful Horowitz believed.
Previous Mars plans have been scuttled or stalled, as Congress and the White House changed directions. But even with billions of dollars and a firm commitment, Duggins shows just how challenging a Mars mission would be.
Take, for example, the 1991-93 experience of Biosphere 2, a glass-enclosed, self-sustaining ecosystem built in Arizona to test how humans could react long-term in a sealed environment. It was not so different from what astronauts might endure on a Martian trip that could take more than a year.
After several months, the oxygen levels inside the terrariumlike Biosphere 2 went awry. The homegrown food didn't provide enough nourishment. Relations among the eight crew members went from bad to worse. Eventually, the exhausted, fed-up crew gave up and walked out — which you can do in Arizona, but not on Mars.
Duggins explains many dangers of traveling to the red planet. The radiation could be deadly, far worse than the levels experienced by space shuttle astronauts. Mars is far more remote than the International Space Station or even the moon — just sending a radio signal to Mars and back takes 20 minutes. It would be next to impossible to rescue someone.
"Proponents of a mission to Mars admit that astronauts may be lost along the way," Duggins writes. "NASA has even begun studies on the sensitive issue of under what circumstances would an injured crew member be allowed to die if it threatens the mission. . . ."
But a successful mission would allow scientists to continue looking for evidence of past life on Mars or allow for a trip to Valles Marineris. This is a 5-mile-deep formation that has been dubbed "the Grand Canyon of Mars," big enough to stretch from Los Angeles to New York if it were on Earth.
Duggins' book shows it would take deep political willpower for anything as expensive, dangerous and inspiring as a journey to Mars.
It would take a giant leap.
Curtis Krueger covers a variety of issues, including space and science, for the Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8232.