Afterthoughts: Mission to Mars

When you gotta go, you gotta go.


Recently, The Honolulu Advertiser came out against President George Bush’s call for humans to get back into space. Its editorial argued that Bush’s announcement “of a manned mission to Mars and a permanent base on the moon bears all the unpleasant earmarks of a candidate groping for reasons why voters should give him a second term.” There are better ways to spend the money, said The Advertiser, than a rerun of the Apollo missions, suggesting that America instead capture Osama Bin Laden, increase security at ports, balance the budget and pay for education and health coverage for more people.

People have been saying such things about the space program since the 1960s Apollo missions: It’s nothing but a political stunt; it’s a waste of money, when we have more pressing problems here on Earth.

There’s a good way to disarm the first criticism. Spend private money instead of public. NASA is a Cold War relic, its 1960s lunar heyday an explicit lesson to the Soviets—if we can put a man on the moon, we can certainly land an ICBM in the men’s room of the Kremlin.

Since then, NASA contracts have spread space expertise throughout American industry. Maybe it’s time for industry to cut loose. When it comes to space, where are the individualistic entrepreneurs for which America is famous, the future captains of space industry?

Of course, if some citizen pioneer stepped forward and financed a Mars expedition, some people would still grumble that the money should have been spent at home. However, the money is spent at home. The space industry creates jobs for a variety of professions, from astrophysicists to welders. At best, it has an enormous payoff, even if it seems unimaginably distant. The payoff is our survival. Just sitting still on this planet has known risks. Some day, we will need a way out.

We live in a pleasantly warm time, between ice ages. Everything we take for granted about civilization, from agriculture to cities, people have just invented since the glaciers started retreating 20,000 years ago. But during the past 2 million years, there have been 20 glacial advances and retreats. Ice ages are the norm. The glaciers will be back, and people who look just like us are going to need an escape route.

Volcanic activity, asteroid and comet strikes, bursts of radiation from an uncaring sun—anything could happen. It’s happened before. The history of life on Earth has been interrupted by six mass extinctions.

Compared to mass extinctions, space flight seems harmless, especially if it spreads humanity far and wide, immune from any single disaster. However, people do argue that manned space exploration is too dangerous and better left to probes such as the Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity. Such critics point to the 17 fatalities in the history of the U.S. space program: three lost in Apollo 1 in a fire on the launch pad, seven lost in each of the space shuttles Challenger and Columbia.

That count is meaningless without context. In an average year, 43,000 Americans die in traffic accidents. That’s 859,159 dead from 1982 to 2001. Most of those fatalities were deaths without glory, suffered in pursuit of goals no more lofty than crossing the street for a pack of smokes, or driving home from a rock concert. Astronauts, on the other hand, die doing something profound, something for which they volunteered knowing the risks.

In the longest view we could possibly take, getting off the Earth will save multitudes. We’ve got to get to it some day. In the meantime, the things we learn along the way, the cooperation and intellect required to get out there, will pay off, too. We need the demands of space to keep our brains sharp—civilizations can fall into cultural ruin, too, if untended.

In the Dark Ages, the Western world, once home to the technologically advanced Greek and Roman civilizations, forgot how to make cement. But even those benighted medievals spent time, energy and lives building elaborate cathedrals. Whatever it takes to reach the heavens. 

Polar storms on Mars photographed in 2002 by the Mars Global Surveyor.

Photo: Courtesy NASA/JPL/Cornell