These days, the word pioneer is usually understood to be some kind of innovator; a person who leads a new field of study, movement or enterprise. This was not the original meaning, however, and this sense of a pioneer being an innovator did not emerge until the nineteenth century. In the sixteenth century, a pioneer was a soldier who dug trenches and cleared the terrain in preparation for the rest of his regiment; he opened up the way for others to follow, but only in response to orders. The word pioneer derives from the Middle French pionnier which meant a labourer employed in digging.
Some of the great pioneers of modern history are the crews of the manned Apollo space missions which lasted from 1967-1972. Their work was an inspiration to the world, but also fraught with danger—in 1967, three astronauts died in the test stage of Apollo 1 and the crew of Apollo 13 in 1970 narrowly avoided death. But like true pioneers, these risks did not deter the astronauts: in 1969, Neil Armstrong was walking on the moon and in 1972 Alan Shephard was practicing his golf shot from the lunar surface. They persevered in the face of extreme danger, determined to pave the way for the future of space exploration.
Despite all their bravery and ambition, though, no one has followed in their footsteps, and the mission of 1972 was the last time humans touched down on the moon. Since Armstrong’s “giant leap” the world seems to have lost its appetite for human space exploration. NASA’s budget constraints, made all the more severe from cuts in government funding, means the focus remains on exploration by robots.
But Buzz Aldrin, the second man to have walked on the moon, is a fierce advocate for human space exploration and, specifically, the colonization of mars. In his editorial for Time magazine last year he wrote: “We need to look forward to countries around the globe following our lead and establishing a rotating permanence on Mars for science and commercial resources. Some 45 years ago, when Neil Armstrong and I stepped upon the surface of the moon at Tranquility Base, we fulfilled a dream held by humankind for centuries. Yes, it was one small step. Today, more steps are needed”.
Perhaps Dutch entrepreneur Bas Lansdorp is the key. Founder of the Mars One project, a non-profit organization, he plans to send humans to colonize Mars by 2027. Despite the fact the mission has no return ticket thousands of people from the general public have applied to go. Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) estimate that a crew would die after 68 days, but for some such warnings are irrelevant: risks are not only worth taking, but must be taken to secure a future beyond earth.
Gus Grissom, who died in the Apollo 1 test stage, understood these risks better than anyone, and Aldrin went on to quote him in his editorial writing: “If we die, we want people to accept it. We’re in a risky business, and we hope that if anything happens to us it will not delay the program. The conquest of space is worth the risk of life”.
The spirit of a true pioneer.