Is putting people on Mars worth the money? A wandering series of thoughts on science, politics, and inspiration
I would love to go into space, especially Mars, even if nothing ever happens there*. You know Mars, fourth planet from the sun, red, god of War. I want to go. But being a middle-class Midwesterner who works in energy policy instead of some kind of m(b)illionaire with money to burn will likely keep that dream from becoming a reality. Alas.
Turns out though, lots of people want to go to Mars. And some people think that wouldn’t be all that difficult (difficult here being relative, of course). Life’s Little Mysteries has laid out a 5-step plan from Robert Zubrin to get humans to Mars, establish a base camp, and begin regular outgoing and return trips using technology that we already have. When you read the plan it seems that Mars is not that far away. Getting there would take billions of dollars, but that’s a political problem, not a scientific one.
That 5-step plan has me wondering if the hurdles to Mars are mostly financial and political. Isn’t this America? If we wanted to get to Mars, if we could overcome the politics, certainly the US could send humans to Mars. Damn right. As Zubrin says, “”We’re closer today to sending people to Mars than we were to sending people to the moon in 1969.”
But there is a real question to be asked: why should we go to Mars? Seriously. What argument would convince Americans that a trip to Mars is worth billions of dollars?
The first, and most obvious, answer is the knowledge. There’s a lot to learn, more than can be expressed in the sentiment ‘there is a lot to learn’, but why risk sending people on that trip? Take water. We’ve long since discovered that there is ice on Mars, a discovery that changes what Mars means. But now the evidence is mounting, (in full barsoomenating detail at BadAstronomy) that there is liquid water on the red planet. LIQUID! And it just might be that liquid water means life on Mars. Possibly. Well, maybe but worth looking for, for sure. For TRC, who is in a temporary political malaise, it’s a discovery that’s worth getting excited over, in the least, and maybe worth calling for manned Mars Missions, like Ross Pomeroy at Newton Blog:
It is my hope that a finding of this magnitude will spark renewed enthusiasm for devising a manned mission to the “Red Planet.” What could be more worthwhile than finally answering the question of whether or not life is only endemic to planet Earth?
If you stop reading the entry at this point, it is exciting. But it would also deny reality. Pomeroy continues:
Unfortunately, I doubt any such discussion could survive or even begin in the current political climate. A “we can’t” atmosphere has taken hold of Washington, D.C. Now, most politicians seem to look at everything through a narrow, short term lens that focuses purely on costs and poll numbers. Lost, in this distorted view, is the long-term picture.
This is what we’re doing. Focusing so narrowly on a political moment in time at the expense of the future. Is that over-simplified? Of course. Do we have serious short- and long-term political problems that need addressing? Of course. Do we need to work out this budget gridlock and our spending and debt problems? Of course. Should these political problems facing a country in 2011 involve themselves in the long-term scientific pursuit of knowledge and truth and life? A pursuit that needs steady certainty to move itself forward? No. These are politics of the moment, and we need to see beyond the moment. After all, just a flight to Mars is a political lifetime.
And this is Life on another Planet that we are talking about.
It might not be on Mars, but Life is what we’re really looking for, isn’t it? Deep down? The wonder of the cosmos, for TRC at least, is that somewhere some other life exists. Be it microbial or intelligent. It’s a marvelous thought. And that get’s to the second reason (of many) to go to Mars.
The search for liquid water and the implications for life on Mars can bring back what the American Space Program seems to be losing. Magic. Sending humans into space-to Mars, to an actually different planet than the one humans inhabit-is a mind-blowing endeavor. A collaborative, national mission to Mars is capable of inspiring literally millions of young women and men to engage in science and poetry and engineering and philosophy, and all the great pursuits of humanity. It can produce the next generation of innovators and dreamers that our nation seems to desperately need. That’s the romantic argument. The strongest one, really.