There I am, staring at the red planet through the thick glass of the spaceship. I still can't believe it all happened so fast. But probably the scientists of the previous generations thought so too. In 66 years we went from “The Wright brothers' first flight” to “Armstrong's first step”. The world can change in the blink of an eye.
Lost in my thoughts, I see my loyal colleague Henk in the reflection of the glass. "You still can't believe it, can you?" he says. "No, indeed," I reply. ``I see, I never thought that we would still see a time when gigantic spaceships race through the solar system,'' Henk replies. Sinking back into my thoughts, I look back on my scientific career.
After my master's degree in aerospace engineering, I chose a research route that combined my passion for space travel and chemistry: spacecraft propulsion engineering. I ended up in a huge international team of incredibly talented chemists, commissioned by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory to develop a propulsion system with a high enough specific impulse to make interplanetary return trips profitable. Here I befriended my colleague Henk, the only other Dutchman. After much trial and error, we managed to create an efficient and light fusion engine that generates thrust through magnetic plasma confinement. The engine design was a huge success in commercial aerospace. A scaled-up version of the nuclear fusion reactor also proved to be a more efficient alternative to nuclear fission reactors and wind turbines.
After this success, the Japanese co-researcher Sakuta invited me for another gigantic research project at the Japanese National Institute for Material Sciences. Of course I accepted the sacrifice, I admired Sakuta for his expertise in polymer chemistry and organic synthesis, so I still had a lot to learn from him. The aim of the research project was to find a fast and inexpensive way to synthesize long carbon nanotubes so that aircraft could be significantly lighter because they would no longer need copper lightning conductors. After years of work, the team had found a revolutionary catalyst for the chain-growth process of carbon nanotubes that remained active for a very long time. This made it possible to produce bundles of carbon nanotubes up to 25 meters long. Sakuta and I were amazed at the applications of our discovery. It has been used in biochemistry as a biocompatible neural interface, and in commercial space travel as a coating to protect travelers from cosmic rays.
Looking back on my career, I realize why it all happened so fast. Every groundbreaking discovery opens doors for new groundbreaking discoveries. Each answer raises ten new questions and shows how much we don't know yet. Scientific discovery is an accelerating self-propelled process. Yet one person cannot change the world, he can only give it a nudge in the right direction. From horseless carriage to highways in 70 years, from radio to color television in 64 years, on average a person sees the world change once. Staring at the red planet, I feel honored to have given my little push.