Despite billionaires’ ambitions of colonizing Mars in their lifetimes, one space traveler doubts it will happen in the next century.

“I frankly think that it is going to be much more difficult to go to Mars than NASA is admitting or Elon Musk is admitting,” former astronaut Bill Anders said Friday on the 118th anniversary of the Wright brothers’ first flight.

“We’re just not designed to withstand the hardships of zero-G for a long time,” said Anders, the East County high school graduate who flew with Frank Borman and Jim Lovell on Apollo 8, the first mission to circumnavigate the Moon. “We weren’t designed to take the space radiation, which is my expertise. And NASA I think kinda ignores (it). So I’m not sure we will ever get humans to Mars. Maybe 100 years from now.”

Anders, 88, was among the engineers and staff of the San Diego Air and Space Museum in Balboa Park to mark the 1903 aviation milestone when Orville Wright took off on a gusty morning aboard the Wright Flyer in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.

The museum paid its respects at 10 a.m. by briefly firing up an exact reproduction of the Orville and Wilbur Wright brothers’ engine, making a loud sputtering sound.

The reproduction was built over a 2½-year period beginning in 1993 by museum volunteers Bud Monfort, Ted Tomesella and Lee Lowery, all now deceased.

Robert McClure, a volunteer machinist for the museum, told an audience of two dozen it takes a great deal of maintenance to keep it up and running for the annual commemoration. If you run it too long, it gets hot and burns exhaust valves.

Of the Wright engine, Anders said: “That wonderful old, 12-horsepower … engine compared to this technology is just amazing.”

Technology will keep leap-frogging year after year “in exponential increases,” said Anders, who took the iconic “Earthrise” photo from Apollo 8, recited the first line of Genesis on Christmas Eve 1968 and later founded the Heritage Flight Museum in Washington state, his summer home.

The need for a big government-backed program like Apollo is being replaced by rich, private citizens, such as Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos and private companies, competing to get into space, he noted. (The museum honored Bezos in November 2019.)

Anders’ “Earthrise” photo during the 1968 Apollo 8 mission became iconic. His signed copy is held at the Grossmont High School museum, a school he attended.

“Even though I am pessimistic about how far we will get away from our home planet, I’m an old guy,” said Anders, who along with his wife was raised in the La Mesa and Lemon Grove areas. “We always think that nothing will change much, but maybe they will be able to pull it off.”

But the moon is a different story.

Anders predicts that within 20 years, research facilities will be on the lunar surface — without NASA leadership.

Jim Kidrick, the museum’s president and CEO, is more optimistic about deep space travel.

“Number one, we are going back to the moon,” Kidrick said. “We’re going to prove that we can populate it. Learning to live in deep space is absolutely critical.”

He cited human presence in low Earth orbit with the International Space Station. But the retired Air Force major general says: “We have languished there a little longer than we intended.”

People are excited about eventually going to Mars and beyond, he said.

“Who knows? Is it going to be that Star Trek five-year mission that will keep on going because it really is unlimited?” Kidrick told Times of San Diego. “Nobody knows, and that’s pretty exciting.”

Kidrick added: “Who would have ever thought we would have a space race by people inside the boundaries of our own country? When you think about what Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos has done, [Richard] Branson is a little more into the tourism side, NASA is trying to catch up in a weird sort of way.”

The key to success in space will be reusable modules, Kidrick said.

“But you think about it. It all started with that engine right there. That is what is cool,” the museum president said as airliners flew over.

He’s been to Kitty Hawk — “to some degree very featureless” — and said it had to be just an exciting place to be that day.

“But it was done with no fanfare, very quiet, a couple of brothers who made bicycles,” Kidrick said.

Machinist McClure had his fingers crossed that the engine would fire up again Friday morning.

The presentation honored the innovation, engineering, technology and aviation excellence displayed by Orville and Wilbur Wright – two charter members of the International Air & Space Hall of Fame, a museum statement said.

Said McClure: “It’s amazing that (the Wright brothers) thought it was conceivable and did it. Charley Taylor, their mechanic/machinist that designed and built it, was an absolute genius.” 

Asked what about the replica engine amazes him, McClure said after the presentation: “That it runs.”

“I can now enjoy Christmas.”

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