I am sick of hearing people say that the Space Age is "over" because we haven't sent humans back to the Moon. Seriously? That's your complaint? You people need to shut the hell up, and this gorgeous picture of Saturn taken by Cassini is just one reason why.
Let's begin by talking about what the "Space Age" is, shall we? The term got bandied around a lot in the 1950s because it was the first time in human history that we sent anything into space. During the "Space Race," which was really just another aspect of the Cold War, we started the glorious journey to the stars by sending remote-controlled probes into the upper atmosphere and eventually into orbit. Later, in the 1960s, we started sending people into space and eventually a few of them landed on the Moon.
We learned a lot from those heady early days of the Space Age, and one of them was that building a city on the Moon would be a lot more expensive and difficult than sending a few guys over there in a can. Despite this dismaying discovery, we managed to launch several semi-permanent space habitats into orbit. First there was Skylab in the 1970s, followed by Mir. Now we've got the ongoing project known as the International Space Station, or ISS. All of these space stations had permanent or semi-permanent human crews living in them.
That's right. A few members of our species have been living in space since the late 1960s. What difference does it make if they aren't on the Moon? They are in space.
More importantly, humans have continued the project that our grandparents and great-grandparents started in the 1950s when the Space Age began. Remember how that project got off the ground with remote-controlled satellites? Want to know why? Because that is how smart explorers do it. Believe it or not, we are actually clever enough monkeys that we are carefully doing a little reconnaissance in distant, dangerous places before we send people there. Which is why we have sent probes to Mars, the asteroid belt, Jupiter, Saturn, Neptune, Uranus, Pluto, and even to several moons and comets.
We currently have two robots on the surface of Mars that we are actually driving around. They are equipped with instruments that can do pretty sophisticated science experiments. We also have a satellite orbiting Mars, the MRO, which can take incredibly granular images of the planet's surface and do climate analysis. Using these robots and the MRO, we have discovered important things like the fact that Mars has underground ice, and once had seas on its surface. This is precisely the kind of information we need to know before we get to the planet ourselves.
This is not the end of the Space Age, people. This is not a failure. This is the very definition of success.
Not only are we actually visiting every damn nook and cranny in our solar system — and sending back some of the most awe-inspiring images and data you've ever seen — but we are not doing it like idiots. We are exploring before we shoot our fragile little bodies out there into the radiation-saturated unknown. That is what a smart species does. Back pats for all the Homo sapiens who decided to send a robot to Mars before sending astronauts.
Look, I get that some of you want to go to Mars even if it means dying there. I know you're bitter that there are no giant ads for Coke on the surface of the Moon. But what would it say about our species if we let you go and do stupid shit like that? The fact that our scientific community is mostly on board with not murdering you to explore Mars is a good thing. The fact that we are trying to figure how to safely and sustainably build on the Moon before doing it — that is a sign of progress.
And the fact that we have sent our robot minions out to surf the rings of Saturn, drive the rocky canyons of Mars, and pop their heads above the magnetic envelope around the solar system? That is a fucking win. Those things are all evidence that we are in the Space Age and are here to stay.
There's another thing to keep in mind when you start getting the urge to whine about how you aren't going to get to visit Jupiter next week. Humans have been analyzing the cosmos for thousands of years. Our dreams of space began when people began naming the constellations, and astronomy itself is a centuries-long project that once revolutionized the world by suggesting that we lived on a rocky ball orbiting a fiery blob. We've been at this for a long time.
Copernicus, Galileo and their cohort didn't stop exploring space with their instruments and telescopes just because some damn guy in a funny hat threatened them with imprisonment. (Well, OK, Galileo pretended to stop, but the heliocentrism was out of the bag.) And we're certainly not going to stop now, when our high-tech creations are already out there, flying through space and rolling across the surface of Mars. Humanity has already made a long-term commitment to space.
My point is that colonizing other worlds is not something that takes ten years, or even a hundred. It might take much longer than that before humans are living on Mars, or in orbit around Saturn. But we are undeniably on the path toward a future where humans live in space. Our ancestors, who dared to learn from the planets and stars, led us onto this path. And now we are actually seeing those planets up close, for the first time in the history of our species.
This is what it feels like to be living through the dawning of the Space Age. It's not like riding on a rocket — it's a slow, difficult climb. Enjoy this small but incredible slice of time that you get to live through, and remember that Galileo would be weeping with envy and relief to know we made it this far. Just because it takes centuries doesn't mean we aren't making progress. We're riding a slow, powerful wave that will bear future generations to the stars.
All images via NASA
Annalee Newitz is the author of the book, Scatter, Adapt and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction. Follow her on Twitter.