This is part of IEEE Spectrum's Special Report: Why Mars? Why Now?
This past autumn, I met with all 1700 first-year engineering students at Purdue University. I asked them what their generation’s greatest technological legacy might be. Repeatedly, they told me: sending people to Mars.
I was surprised, but I shouldn’t have been. Human achievement takes countless forms, and none has proved more revolutionary than space exploration. It energizes engineering, resuscitates research, and galvanizes new generations. After all, fearless optimism and an accompanying willingness to do what’s hard are what set great engineers apart. As U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower once said, engineers ”build not merely for the needs of men but for their dreams as well.”
Ironically, it wasn’t dreams but rather fear that triggered the race to space. The October 1957 launch of Sputnik set in motion a wave of technological advancement unsurpassed in history, the ripples of which are still being felt today. For more than a decade, policy-makers and the public genuinely believed that the future depended on engineers and scientists and that education would have to inspire young people to pursue those careers.
In the United States, Congress provided loans for college students and funded improvements in science, mathematics, and foreign-language instruction at elementary and secondary schools. In Europe, NATO set up a science committee, which proposed to launch ”a satellite for peaceful outer space research…and circling the earth by 1960.”
Glorious things came out of that era. On 25 May 1961, President John F. Kennedy delivered his legendary man-on-the-moon speech, and eight years later, Apollo 11 made good on it. It was one of the United States’ finest hours, and for a time, at least, virtually anything seemed possible. And so the impact continued to reverberate through the rest of the 20th century and on into this one, albeit as an increasingly weakened echo.