This month marks the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission that first landed men on the Moon and one of the University of Iowa’s top space researchers is skeptical we’ll ever top that achievement.
Don Gurnett, professor emeritus in the UI physics and astronomy department, says the scientific triumph on July 20th of 1969 is unmatched — and it’s practically unmatchable.
“But I do think landing on the Moon, the first step on the Moon by Neil Armstrong, was really a historic event,” Gurnett says. “It was the first time we stepped on another heavenly object, and it was, of course, followed by a number of astronauts landing on the Moon.”
Only a dozen astronauts walked on the Moon, all men and all Americans, between 1969 and 1972. In his six decades at the UI, Gurnett has designed and built instruments that have gone aboard some three-dozen spacecraft, all of which were non-manned missions. While NASA may return humans to the Moon in the years to come, Gurnett remains doubtful we’ll ever go beyond. Will astronauts ever make bootprints on Mars, for example?
“That’s a really good question, actually,” Gurnett says. “There aren’t very many places we can actually fly a human to. They often speak about exploring the solar system but hey, we’ve done that with robotic spacecraft.”
Gurnett helped build some of the key instruments onboard the Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft, launched in 1977, which explored Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. None of those would be hospitable for human visitors, though, and neither would our nearest neighbor, Venus.
“The surface temperature of Venus is some 900-degrees Fahrenheit, above the melting point of lead, so you really can’t go to Venus,” Gurnett says. “By the way, I might point out that’s because Venus has a dense carbon dioxide atmosphere.”
He notes there is much worry on Earth about putting CO2 into our atmosphere for just that reason. A manned mission to another planet will cost billions and involve great risk, he says, in addition to the fact we don’t have all the answers we need to questions about how to keep the crew alive for the long flight through radiation-poisoned deep space.