Five Human Achievements That Could Top Walking on the Moon
Forty years after Apollo 11, a look forward at the world-changing discoveries that could match--or even top--humankind's first steps on the moon
Free Fusion Energy?
Possibly the single most influential event in the public’s interest in science and technology (not to mention one of humankind’s greatest adventures), the Apollo 11 mission touched the collective dreams of millions, while pushing science and technology swiftly forward at an unprecedented pace.
But in the decades since man first walked on the moon, science has advanced so rapidly that technology which even a few years ago might have been considered magic has become commonplace. Even so, it would be naïve to assume that Apollo 11 ever represented science and technology’s pinnacle, and that nothing forthcoming will similarly explode the world’s collective dreams and perceptions of what it means to be human.
So what’s next? What will be the next worldwide event or discovery that fundamentally changes the way we look at ourselves and the universe we live in?
When President Kennedy laid forth his plan to put a man on the moon he did so in a world that had just become acclimated to rapidly advancing technology. Nuclear power, television, jet engines, satellites and computers had proven that only the scope of our imaginations limited our progress. By challenging America to go to the moon, Kennedy forced the country to expand its imagination to meet the possibilities of science.
So, in honor of the 40th anniversary of the moon landing, we’ve assembled a list scientific accomplishments that would certainly shatter our nonchalance about advanced technology, capturing worldwide psyches at the same time.
Clearly, this list is incomplete, and we’d like you, the readers to add to it. What scientific or engineering project, discovery, or advance do you think could inspire and impress the people of today like the moon landing did 40 years ago? Have we, as a civilization, moved past the propensity to marvel at technological progress, or can a sufficiently impressive advance still illicit awe? We look forward to reading your additions to our list, your arguments for and against them, and your general observations about the ability of science to inspire. Now, let’s take a look at the list:
Mars, Our Next Stop?
A Manned Mission to Mars
Ever since the moon landing, humans (including those who’ve walked on the moon) have looked past the moon to Earth’s next closest neighbor: Mars. Travelling to Mars is of course vastly more difficult than travelling to the moon, but if anything can become a worldwide moment as Apollo 11 did, it would be humans walking on another planet for the first time.
Where We Are Now: During the Bush Administration, and especially under the tenure of NASA Administrator Michael Griffin, manned missions to Mars received a great deal of support. However, the Obama Administration is far less taken with the idea of manned spaceflight, and has scalled back many programs considered necessary for an eventual mission to Mars.
Even if the political will was there, right now, the technology isn’t. There is currently no shielding strong enough to protect the astronauts from the high power cosmic rays that would constantly bombard them during the trip. These highly charged particles cause cancer, and damage the astronauts’ eyes and brains. Additionally, being stuck in a tin can adrift in space for the 500+ day journey (one-way) doesn’t exactly do wonders for the psyche, and most research catalogues a range of problems resulting from the cramped, precarious and monotonous living conditions.
All of this adds up to journey that reduces fit, PhD-graduate astronauts to blind, brain-damaged lunatics who probably couldn’t get it together enough to land the ship when they did eventually reach Mars.
What Needs To Happen: Designing a rocket that can travel to Mars and back is actually the easy part. Dealing with the shielding and the health problems caused by the trick form the real problem. Cosmic rays travel at nearly the speed of light, so any physical shielding thick enough to stop them built from current tech would likely be too heavy to get into orbit. Luckily, cosmic rays are charged particles, and thus easily manipulated by magnetic fields. Current thinking focuses on magnetic shielding that would redirect the rays around the spaceship, rather than block them outright.
On the psychology front, a recent European study locked six scientists in a simulated spacecraft for 105 days, and none of them succumbed to space madness. This year, another team of six will be locked in the simulator for the full 520 days a Mars mission is expected to take. The results of that test will provide a wealth of data needed to design the psychological program that will keep the astronauts mentally fit to perform their duties.
Chances It Will Occur Within A Decade: Nil. The technology could certainly be developed, but right now, the political will (yet alone the financial support) just isn’t there.
The Discovery of Alien Life
Part of what made the Apollo mission so awe inspiring was that looking back at a unified, fragile planet adrift in a cold and terrifying void made us reconsider who we were as a species, and our species’ place in a vast universe. The discovery of alien life, even if that life amounts to nothing more than a string of protein or some nucleotides, would undoubtedly prompt that same kind of introspection about the role of life in the cosmos.
Where We Are Now: The Mars rock ALH84001 famously contained what some believe are fossils of Martian nano-bacteria, as well as some biological material–but whether these are in fact Martian in origin or the result of Earthly contamination has yet to be solidly confirmed. Additionally, SETI continues to harness computers and telescopes worldwide, searching for signals from intelligent life, and the Voyager probes have left our solar system with solid gold records that serve as a message for any ET that happens to find them.
What Needs To Be Done: The current thinking is that the best place to look for extraterrestrial life is on Jupiter’s moon Europa. Europa has a vast ocean, as well as a good deal of oxygen in its atmosphere. The combination of water, oxygen, and energy from the gravitational pull of Jupiter have led some scientists to theorize that organic molecules might form life at the bottom of Europa’s oceans, similar to the life that formed on undersea volcanic vents on Earth.
Chances It Will Occur Within A Decade: Hard to say. There are no missions planned to explore Europa, but who knows when another chunk of Mars might fall out of the sky with more definitive evidence.
Ivy Mike Mushroom Cloud
Full Nuclear Disarmament
Nuclear weapons vexed the conscience of science since before they even physically existed. Eliminating them would not only greatly reduce the chance of mass human catastrophe in the world, but allow science to atone for one of its most divisive creations.
Where We Are Now: Since peaking in the 1980’s, the number of nuclear weapons has significantly dropped following the end of the Cold War. Additionally, the US and Russia just agreed to reduce their arsenals by a quarter over the coming years.
However, Russia and the US still maintain a nuclear stockpile of thousands of weapons each, and countries like Israel, Pakistan, India and North Korea continue to avoid the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. But paradoxically, since the US and Russia own 95 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons, the total number of weapons in the world continues to drop, even while the number of nuclear armed states rises.
What Needs To Be Done: While the scientists that actually worked to create the first atomic bomb significantly influenced the debate over the use of nuclear weapons in the early days of the Cold War, the power of scientists to affect the debate about nuclear weapons has declined precipitously. Scientists continue to be active in the disarmament/nonproliferation community, but this is effectively a political problem now.
Chances It Will Occur Within A Decade: For total elimination, barring an extreme Prozac-in-the-drinking-water-type mood shift in the world’s political scene? Not great. Promising, though, is that last 10 years saw the number of nuclear weapons cut in half, with even further reductions on the way. While a world with zero nuclear weapons may still be far off, it’s not unrealistic to imagine a 2020 with significantly reduced stockpiles.
Free Fusion Energy?
The cost of energy, especially energy derived from fossil fuels, feeds into a wide range of problems around the world–foremost of course being the gradual destruction of the environment. Finding a clean, nearly free source of energy would drastically alter the dynamics of the world system–politically, socially and economically.
Where We Are Now: Anyone who’s been to a gas station or paid an electric bill knows that energy isn’t free. Additionally, the current debate over when and how to transition away from a carbon-based energy economy has highlighted just how finite and expensive most current energy solutions are.
Even worse, the US Department of Energy predicts a 34 percent increase in the cost of energy by 2020, leaving electricity costing an average of 12.2 cents per kilowatt hour.
However, many experts claim that those numbers don’t accurately incorporate the true life cycle cost of coal. Gill also believes that a 20 percent increase in both solar and wind energy could meet the world’s energy demand for the next 20 years, two forms of energy that are notoriously cheap once the initial investment costs are overcome.
What Needs To Happen: Although the start up costs are high, solar thermal and offshore wind power drastically reduce the long term cost of energy by using a fuel that, unlike coal, natural gas and nuclear, costs exactly nothing.
To really get massive amounts of energy for next to no money, (and for a similarly Apollo-like public attention garnering) most people pin their hopes on a major and unexpected development in nuclear fusion. And while some fusion technologies promise easy, cheap energy, many experts think it might be over 100 years before fusion lights anyone’s home.
Chances It Will Occur Within A Decade: The cars will be different, and the light bulbs will be more efficient, but 10 years from now, we’re still going to have to pay an electric bill.
HIV Budding From A Cell
Cure For HIV/AIDS
Just as the space program was forming, another historic scientific project began that some would argue had an even greaterimpact: the eradication of smallpox. And just as smallpox once ravaged the globe, so has HIV devastated the people, economy and society of Africa and drastically altered the sexual culture of the Western world and. A cure or vaccine for HIV would no doubt rank as a scientific achievement on par with the eradication of smallpox, and bring about a celebration to rival that which accompanied the moon landing.
Where We Are Now: While there are treatments for HIV, there is currently no cure or vaccine, despite an estimated $870 million spent on the problem this year (the first year that figure has dropped from the year prior). A variety of vaccine candidates have entered into clinical trials, but none have shown any particular promise. The newest vaccine, developed by Merck, uses another virus as a vector for certain key strands of HIV DNA, which the immune system should identify and then fight against.
What Needs To Be Done: Over the last 30 years, HIV has joined influenza as one of the most vexing, mutation-prone viruses known to man. A vaccine for HIV is particularly tricky because HIV attacks the immune system itself, and thus cuts off the benefits of a vaccine as a matter of course.
An additional technical challenge involves developing better animal models. Primates infected with the analogue disease SIV have not proven to be accurate models for medicine and disease spread in humans. And since HIV is so deadly in humans, and since patients who contract the virus face a still-unique set of social challenges, scientists have not been able to use human subjects in the same way they have with other viruses as widespread as HIV.
Overcoming the mutations of the virus, and developing better animal models, would go a long way towards the development of a vaccine.
Chances It Will Occur Within A Decade: Moderate. For decades, people have predicted an HIV vaccine right around the corner, and the virus has made fools of them all. However, advances in genetics and computer modeling have greatly enhanced the development of drugs in general, so a vaccine may be closer than ever before.
And now its your turn. Do you agree with the list? Think we included something that would not cause moon landing-level wonder? Are there any items that we left off that you think are particularly noteworthy? The first human clone? The first computer to become sentient? We are looking forward to hearing what you have to say.