Right now, 100,000,000km away, a small piece of human-made machinery is collecting data on the surface of a different planet and sending information back to scientists here on Earth.
On the surface of a different planet! Um. Wow.
What an extraordinary achievement. What a potent expression of the ingenuity, irrepressibility and imagination of the human species. What a poignant symbol, when we see those images of a desert planet, of the uniqueness and fragility of life here on Earth.
And yet, every time space travel is on the agenda, there are voices calling it a waste of money; arguing that we shouldn’t be exploring our planetary neighbours while people on Earth are starving; declaiming, as Germaine Greer did just this week, that, instead of looking at other planets, we should fix up our own planet first.
I call false dichotomy.
This is the same kind of thinking that leads Campbell Newman and his ilk of incoming ‘leaders’ to meet their ever-necessary budget cuts by slashing programs that improve people’s lives and protect the environment while continuing to fund more coal and goat racing infrastucture. Why must space exploration compete for funding with solar power, foreign aid and primary health care instead of with corporate tax cuts, coal railways and cluster munitions?
Governments should choose the programs they invest in on the basis of the extent to which they increase human welfare over the immediate, medium and long term. Sending humans to Mars meets all those objectives.
The more we explore, the more we value our home
Far from undermining efforts to protect our planet, space travel surely underscores the incredible uniqueness and unimaginable tininess of this Pale Blue Dot.
I know I’m one among millions who spent countless hours staring at Voyager 1’s photo of the tiny speck of blue in a ray of sunlight that Carl Sagan named the Pale Blue Dot. Alongside David Attenborough’s celebration of life on Earth, that image turned me into a confirmed environmentalist. Similarly, the famous Earthrise images of our planet taken from Lunar orbit on Christmas eve 1968 played a critical role in catalysing growing environmental concern into a powerful movement for change.
Neil Armstrong, whose passing the other day in part inspired this article, said after walking on the surface of the Moon in 1969, “I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth. I didn’t feel like a giant. I felt very, very small.”
Perhaps we’ve forgotten the lessons of those images. Perhaps we need to learn anew how tiny and fragile this spaceship Earth really is. Perhaps the time has come to launch a new mission of exploration, an adventure to Mars, so we can recognise the value of our home and work even harder to cherish and protect it.
But maybe we’ll fail.
Maybe it’s already too late. Some scientists say we’ve already triggered feedback loops that will catastrophically disrupt our planetary life-support systems. Methane chimneys in the Arctic are belching up potent greenhouse gases long-frozen below the shallow ocean and in the no longer ‘perma’frost. Greenland’s ice sheet may have passed a tipping point in its inexorable slide off the land. We may no longer be able to stop the acidification of our oceans beyond the point where the organisms that are at the bottom of the food chain can form.
What then happens to this great cosmic accident of life on Earth?
I’m not one who believes in a ‘purpose’ to life. I think we are just here because we’re here. But how wondrous that we are! How incredibly rare in this immeasurably vast universe!
Don’t we feel a sense of duty to preserve and perpetuate the wonder of life? Wouldn’t it be a tragedy if the results of this directorless experiment were lost because of the carelessness and short-sightedness of one dominant species?
The concept of viriditas – literally ‘greening’ – was borrowed from theology to describe the great project humanity could undertake in the decades ahead to spread life beyond the borders of our tiny magnificent planet.
Going to Mars may be the only way we can preserve countless species. It may supplement a superhuman effort to turn around the destruction of our existing biosphere. It may be nothing more nor less than the next logical step in evolution. It may be a fool’s errand, born of arrogance and doomed to failure from the start. But isn’t it worth trying?
Promoting understanding of our world
So far so poetic. But there are far more prosaic reasons for a new space mission, and I don’t mean alfoil and Teflon.
One of the most important spin-offs of the Apollo project was that it inspired a generation of kids to study science. People wanted to be part of this great human adventure, so they dipped their toes into the world of science and got sucked in. The internet reliably tells me that the number of PhDs in the USA increased two and a half times during the Apollo project.
A mission to Mars would be an extraordinary platform for learning more about our world – the planet we live on now; the one we may yet settle; and the great, vast universe beyond. It would be a living experiment in what our own bodies and minds are capable of, in the hardiness and adaptability of life. By attempting spread life to the Martian surface, we would learn vital lessons for living on our own planet as it becomes increasingly inhospitable.
Bugger the poetic and the prosaic preambles.
Sir Edmund Hillary said he climbed Mount Everest “because it’s there”. We’ll go to Mars for the same reason.
One of the most simplistic arguments levelled against space travel in the 21st century is that the Apollo missions were designed by President Kennedy purely and simply as part of the Cold War. Now that we’re not racing the Russians, the line goes, we don’t have any reason to go to Mars.
This completely misses the point. Yes, Kennedy used the Moon mission as a tool in the Cold War. But why did he choose that tool? He chose it because he understood its capacity to inspire the American people – and those far beyond America. He knew that it would capture the imagination far more than the simple desire to outpace the Russians. He understood the human desire to explore.
Why should we go to Mars?
Because we’re human.
Because we have these remarkable brains that are capable of imagining what might be… if we could just turn that next corner and look around.
Because it’s what we do next.
In thinking about this piece, I came across a wonderful article in New Statesman by Alex Hern, arguing that we should remember Neil Armstrong by committing to space exploration that actually matters, that, as he puts it, “democratises the final frontier”. Yup, he’s arguing for a space elevator. And a wonderful argument it is, too!
I say hip hip hooray! Let’s build a space elevator!
And then let’s use it to go to Mars.
*Written with thanks to Kim Stanley Robinson. Of course.