For more than a century now, the fourth planet from the sun has drawn intense interest from those of us on the third. We viewed it, first, as a place where life and intelligence might flourish. The mistaken identification of artificial water channels on its surface in the late 19th century seemed to prove that they did. More recently, terrestrials have gazed at the arid, cratered, wind-swept landscape and seen a world worth traveling to. With increasingly intense longing, we’ve now begun to think of it as a newfound land that men and women can settle and colonize. It’s the only planet in the solar system—rocky, almost temperate, and relatively close—where something like that can be conceived of as remotely plausible.
Now that I've decided to think about spaceflight, I need to consider such matters:
But human beings won’t be going to Mars anytime soon, if ever. In June, a congressionally commissioned report by the National Research Council [Pathways to Exploration: Rationales and Approaches to a U.S. Program of Human Space Exploration], an arm of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering, punctured any hope that with its current and anticipated level of funding NASA will get human beings anywhere within the vicinity of the red planet. To continue on a course for Mars without a sustained increase in the budget, the report said, “is to invite failure, disillusionment, and the loss of the longstanding international perception that human spaceflight is something the United States does best.”
The new report warns against making dates with Mars we cannot keep. It endorses a human mission to the red planet, but only mildly and without setting a firm timetable. Its “pathways” approach comprises intermediate missions, such as a return to the moon or a visit to an asteroid. No intermediate mission would be embarked upon without a budgetary commitment to complete it; each step would lead to the next. Each could conclude the human exploration of space if future Congresses and presidential administrations decide the technical and budgetary challenges for a flight to Mars are too steep.
Yes, going to Mars will be fiercely expensive. And though the US is still the richest nation on earth – though I've heard (but have no citation available) that China now has the world's largest economy by some measure – I don't think the should fund it alone. If humankind is going to Mars, humankind will fund it. If it's worth doing at all, it's too important to become another point of honor in a hunt for nationalist glory.
But will the US fund such a venture if it isn't construed as a matter of national honor? Does that matter, given the club of billionaires who are actively funding space projects? What about other nations, as the US isn't the only one with designs on space travel?
And those pathways, if humankind does return to the moon or visit the asteroids, how will that accomplishment change our perception of who and what we are and of what the universe is? This strikes me as a key matter. This is about mythology, about symbolism, which is at the center of my renewed consideration of space travel.
The report identifies two show-stopping challenges whose solutions so far are either “unknown or unattainable with current technology”: the high-radiation space environment through which the astronauts will have to travel and the design of the Mars landing craft. It also names six critical areas where “no relevant systems exist or have existed at the appropriate scale,” including a life-support system capable of functioning for years without regular supplies from Earth.
Yep! It will be difficult. There's lots of technical glory up for grabs for those who want it.
The committee doesn’t put a definite price tag on the Mars mission. The final cost would depend on which pathways we chose, how quickly we wanted to get there, and what solutions we found for the technical challenges—but the ballpark figure is in the hundreds of billions. Citing polls that reflect the public’s lukewarm interest in the space program, the panel doubts that this could be raised in the current or anticipated political environment.
What happens when people start returning from Branson's Virgin Galactic flights? How will that play? If Branson were to give Malala Yousafzai – 17 year-old Pakistani women who won the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize – a trip, how would that play? Would she accept an offer? What would she say and do upon returning from her flight?
So many questions!
When we think of space, we’re inspired mostly by our deepest hopes for companionship, which would be realized by contact with an alien intelligence, and by our deepest fears about the future of humanity. Now that the Earth’s inevitable uninhabitability has become a staple of popular culture, we seem to have acquired the expectation that our species will save itself by moving to other planets. Pathways to Exploration notes the argument that the space program should emphasize colonization and the ultimate expansion of our species throughout the solar system, so that, eventually, the species may develop the capability to “outlive [the] human presence on Earth.” Christopher Nolan’s new blockbuster Interstellar depends on this premise too, with the tagline: “Mankind Was Born On Earth. It Was Never Meant To Die Here.”
I'm inclined to think this is nonsense: "expectation that our species will save itself by moving to other planets." We've got to save ourselves here on earth. Yes, I'm thinking of going into space as something we need to do to save ourselves, but we're going to save ourselves here on earth, at least for the unfolding century.
Going into space is about reconceptualizing what and who we are, about what we're saving when we save ourselves.
What about a one-way trip to Mars?
Dying on a distant planet holds more appeal than you may think. One such project, the Netherlands-based non-profit Mars One, has drawn credulous press with its promise to land people on Mars in the next decade: Mars One has produced a drawing of its landing craft, but it hasn’t identified the vehicle that’s supposed to transport the settlers. This hasn’t stopped the company from beginning its astronaut selection process. Seventy-eight thousand people have applied for the one-way trip, and the company raised more than $300,000 in its initial crowdfunding campaign. Mars One implausibly claims it can put the first men and women on Mars for $6 billion, a fraction of what it cost to send astronauts to the moon. It says it will raise the rest of the money through the sale of television rights to the Survivor-style selection process and the flight to follow.
This is interesting. Not sure I like that "Survivor-style selection process", but, yes, this is interesting. This is the sort of thing that changes the game in so many ways (which I'll have to think about, but later).
The urge to explore may be deeply engrained in human psychology, but space travel is a dream generated primarily by 20th-century science fiction and given form and durability, remarkably, by a single story-cycle within the genre. The panel observes, “Many space scientists, space enthusiasts, and the general public frequently cite aspects of the Star Trek franchise as their aspirational vision for the kind of future that should be pursued through human spaceflight.”
Yes, we're going to have to scrap that mythology. Adam Roberts has a point when he suggests that that SF mythology has ruined our perception of space travel. We do need a new mythology. Who's going to create it? What will it be? And how? Is there a way to crowd source this new mythology?
But it’s not the planet Earth that’s fragile—it’s the human organism that’s extraordinarily delicate and needy, unable to survive beyond very narrow physical limits, the conditions for which exist naturally nowhere else in our solar system. To keep even a few people alive in space or on another planet requires from those left behind the expenditure of enormous resources. It’s not necessarily backwards-thinking, or anti-technology, or anti-exploration, to wonder if those resources could be better employed.
Well, no it's not. OTOH, when you consider how much time and treasure, and how many lives are wasted in military adventuring, surely a mission to Mars makes more sense than that? Of course, getting those resources redirected to anything more constructive, let alone space travel, that's a BIG problem?
Meanwhile, Kalfus argues that we've got much to learn in space, but learning it doesn't require (fragile) human presence. Robots can do the job and crewing up for a manned Mars mission just distracts from those worthy efforts. And so he closes on his own effort at bold thinking:
Looking beyond our time, and still thinking boldly about going where no human-built machine has gone before, it may not be too early to start talking about launching a robotic mission to the nearest star system: the three stars located four light years away, including the bright double-star system of Alpha Centauri. You can easily see Alpha Centauri tonight, if you’re reading this in the southern hemisphere. It’s the third brightest star in the night sky, outshone only by Sirius and Canopus. One of the double stars is the same color and type as our sun. We’ve found tentative evidence of at least one planet in orbit around it. Costly and technologically intimidating, the flight would take many generations or even centuries, while history wrought its changes on our nations and our politics, our science, our culture and our mores. We would have to wait patiently for the signal of its arrival and for its first discoveries. But this project can be embarked upon in this century. Rather than indulging in fantasies about settling other planets, we would be expressing the commitment to get our act together here on Earth, our only home in a vast, inhospitable universe.
Oh yes, we've got to get our act together here on earth. What I'm wondering is whether or not going to the moon, the asteroids, and maybe even Mars isn't a way to do that. If a Malala Yousafzai were to journey into space, what would she think upon returning? What about 10 or 100 Malala Yousafazai's?