I was taking a look at a picture of a scale composite picture of the relative sizes of Earth, Mars, and our moon. It got me wondering – how far away is Mars? It doesn’t look a whole lot bigger than our moon, to look at…but, actually, it’s twice the size of the moon, and half the size of Earth.
Let me break down some numbers:
The Moon is pretty close to a sphere, like most planetary bodies we think of when we imagine such things, and that sphere is around 3,500km wide. Mars, likewise, is close to a sphere, and is around 6,750km wide. Now for some history.
The first “modern rocket” (i.e. liquid fueled rocket) was launched back in 1926 by Robert Goddard, generally seen as The Godfather of Space Travel. His rocket went around 12 meters into the sky. No, that was not a typo.
The first time humans got anything out of our atmosphere was in 1944 – a German V2 rocket got 100 kilometers off the surface of our planet – which is pretty impressive, considering the first rocket had only been launched twenty years earlier and barely got off the ground without tearing itself apart.
Humans first got a probe onto the moon in 1959 – fifteen years after we found a way to get into space – but we had boots on the ground by 1969.
Can you even fathom a technology that has done such a thing?
Imagine if, after the invention of figuring out how to put gunpower into a gun barrel and make it shoot a projectile, we made a sniper rifle twenty-five years later that is accurate to a half-kilometer. That is insane. Then imagine that, fifteen years after that, we figured out how to accurately fire a bullet that would travel halfway around the world before it hit its target.
I don’t even have a word for how crazy that is.
Less than 50 years after we came up with legitimate rocket technology, we were launching them 340,000 kilometers away, and not just hitting our target, but using it to land robots on the moon!
Fast-forward to today, 50 years later – almost a century after we simply figured out how to get off the ground. Now, while we landed on Mars in 1997, I don’t really count bouncing a giant balloon off the surface and hoping it works to be the kind of science I expect from NASA. I consider 2012 when we landed on Mars – the first significant achievement since we landed a human on our own moon in 1969, because screw Pathfinder – I only count controlled landings (which is why nobody knows what Luna 2 was but everyone knows what Apollo 11 was).
Now, when I first thought about that, I thought…that’s not really as impressive, is it? So let’s do some more fast-and-easy math:
1926 – ground to atmosphere – 12 meters
1944 – ground to space – 100,000 meters (8,300 times the previous)
1969 – ground to moon – 340,000,000 meters (3,400 times the previous)
Then it took us fifty years to get to Mars? I mean, obviously our numbers were falling, in terms of exponential growth. But, that’s not an entirely fair way to look at it. Goddard’s rocket and Germany’s V2 didn’t really have a destination more specific than “up.” So let’s focus on the Earth, our moon, and Mars. But…I mean…how far away can Mars be for us to have to take half-a-century to figure out how to land on it?
Mars is 228,000,000,000 meters away from us.
Can you even imagine, in your head, what that distance looks like? I have a hard time imagining the circumference of my own planet, and it’s only 40,000 kilometers around. In my entire life, I’ve traveled…maybe 300,000 kilometers, total, and that’s a really liberal estimate. I’m a globe-trotter, and my entire lifetime of travel wouldn’t even get me to the moon.
So, back to that math stuff, for a moment.
2012 – ground to Mars – 227,939,100,000 meters (a mere 670 times the previous)
Mars is twice the size of our moon and 670 times as far away from us. Let’s go back to that gun metaphor.
Imagine shooting at a 1-meter-wide target that is 100 meters away, developing your technology from a musket to a rifle by the time you hit your target…which takes you 35 years to do. And when you did, you were met with such thunderous applause that the next ten years was nothing but you shooting that target in different ways. You start doing trick shots. Behind the back. Under the leg. But you spent almost half a century developing not only your shooting skills, but developing from a musket to a sniper rifle. So it starts to get old. So you say, “I’m really bored. Let’s set up a new target. Make it two meters wide…”
Everybody laughs at you. You realize that’s twice the size of what you were already shooting at, right?
Then you drop the nastiness: “And put that target seven kilometers away.”
The laughter stops. They call in the doctors to do a full psychological screening, since you have clearly lost your mind. You can’t even make the gun shoot every time without being sure it won’t explode in your face…and you want to hit what, now? Yeah. You’re insane.
For the next forty years, people laugh at you as you miss the target by ridiculous margins – shooting 500 meters to the left – accidentally hitting random livestock – it’s just a sloppy mess. They decide your task isn’t crazy enough, and should be more dangerous and difficult, so they cut your budget to 20% of what it was when you made that first bulls-eye. The rifles you were using to shoot 100 meters away cost you $1,000 each. The rifles you are using to shoot 6,700 meters away cost $200 a piece…and you still can’t get the damned things to stop blowing up in your face! Though, somehow, they’re blowing up less frequently. You’re kind of a genius.
You drop a round straight through your man-sized target two miles away in front of a crowd that, needless to say, has diminished quite a lot since the last generation. I mean, to be fair, you haven’t hit anything new (other than that cow 500 meters left of your shiny new target) in almost half a century. But, a century earlier, you didn’t even know how to make a gun – now, you’re plugging targets that are miles away. That is amazing. I’m a writer and I don’t have the words for how awesome that sounds. People should be lining up from Florida to Texas just to shake your hand, and yet the news of what you did isn’t much bigger than anything else on television.
No one apologizes for cutting your budget. No one begs forgiveness for not believing you could do it. Most people say, “Hmm, that’s nice,” and go back to debating gay marriage. But, please, do not let that stop you from starting into the trick shots. I want the trick shots!
Oh, yeah, one more thing…
Ceres is 950 kilometers wide and 447,838,164 kilometers away and is our next logical target – the largest planetary body in the asteroid belt. Want the metaphor? Here it comes…
Your target is now 13,000 meters away and 10 micrometers wide. For those who don’t know, there are 100,000 micrometers in a meter. Your target is now 10,000 times smaller than your original target from 50 years ago and it is 1,300 times farther away.
Hit that, NASA. I’m never going to doubt your abilities again.
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