The Real Why

This article appeared in USA Today on February 17, 2003.

It’s time for the space program to stop going around in circles.
It’s time to go somewhere again.


Georges Clemenceau, French Prime Minister during the First World War, reportedly observed, “war is too important to be left to the generals.” The question of human destiny in space is too important to be left to engineers, rocket scientists, and the technical elite.

Why haven’t the space shuttle and the space station ever captured the imagination of the public? Sometimes the most obvious answer is also the most correct one. Apollo galvanized the world because it went somewhere. More than a billion absorbed viewers watched the Mars Pathfinder rover because it went somewhere. The space shuttle and the space station have never seared our collective soul because they don’t go anywhere. They just go around in circles. They’re going nowhere fast.

Fixing whatever caused the destruction of Columbia isn’t going to fix this larger problem of purpose. It’s time to commit for humans to go somewhere again. And the obvious somewhere is Mars.

The moment is ripe for President Bush (or perhaps a Democratic presidential candidate) to do what President Kennedy did in May 1961 – set a deadline for a woman or man to plant the flag of Planet Earth in the soil of Planet Mars. Such a bold and dramatic gesture might cascade into an avalanche of political support. (Has any political candidate ever tried to focus group such a proposal?)

And an obvious, plausible and grandly symbolic deadline looms — the 50-year anniversary of Apollo 11, July 20, 2019. About sixteen years from now. There is little doubt that we could set down a crew on Mars within a dozen years of a commitment to do so. Apollo took only eight. But the clock is ticking, and before long the opportunity to do so within that half-century window will be lost forever.

We should go to Mars for the same reason that Ptolemy and Copernicus and Kepler peered into the void – because “all men by nature,” as Aristotle said in the immortal opening line to his Metaphysics, “desire to know.” We should go to Mars for the same reason that Columbus sailed beyond the sunset. While many of his immediate successors were motivated by commerce, Columbus himself was driven by a fanatical quest for grand achievement, a desire for eternal fame. We should go to Mars simply to do something magnificent and awe-inspiring, something that will belong to the ages, something our descendants will call a Great Thing. “My name is Ozymandias,” thundered Shelley’s great pharaoh, speaking to the rulers of distant places and distant times. “Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”

Since September 11th it has sometimes seemed as if our only meaning is to forestall Awful Things – new terrorist attacks, corporate meltdowns, international mischief by Saddam Hussein and Kim Jong-Il. But the purpose of a civilization is not just to prevent destruction, but also to pursue achievable dreams. We will be remembered in 3003 less for the cataclysms we avoided than for the quests we had the courage to commence. Perhaps we can demonstrate our true triumph over terror by going to Mars and bringing a piece of the World Trade Center along.

Mars is the next step to breaking out into the solar system, the next stop on the infinite journey, the next rung on the ladder to heaven. Mars lies directly on the road toward making ourselves into a spacefaring civilization. Why should we want to do that? Because only that can guarantee immortality for the human race. It’s easy to envision cosmic events that might wipe out all life on Earth. It’s easier still to envision scenarios by which we obliterate ourselves. But if a thousand years from now we have established a durable presence in several locations far distant from one another, it’s hard to imagine any apocalyptic event that could manage to eliminate us all. We will then be as close to immortality as the universe itself.

A wise society is one that looks more than half a lifetime in either direction. George F. Kennan, the great wise man of American foreign policy, likes to observe that our efforts to prevent nuclear apocalypse must be undertaken not just for the benefit of our descendants, but as a debt to those who have gone before us. Surely this is even more true for our epochal achievements still to come. Has anyone ever understood this better than Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon? He brought with him into space a small pencil sketch of the majestic earth as seen from the moon – drawn nearly three decades before anyone human saw that sight by a 14-year old boy who didn’t make it out of Auschwitz alive.

Mars beckons us because of what the late science fiction author Theodore Sturgeon called “the main current which created you and in which you will create still a greater thing, reverencing those who bore you and the ones who bore them, back and back to the first wild creature who was different because his heart leaped when he saw a star.” We go to Mars, and reach for the stars, because we owe it not only to Rick Husband and Judy Resnick and Roger Chafee and Vladimir Komarov, but also to Albert Schweitzer and Dorothy Day, Bolivar and Bach, Gutenberg and Galileo, Magellan and Michelangelo, Augustus and Ashoka. We owe it to the slaves who sweated, toiled and perished to build the Great Pyramids – for thousands of years the tallest structures on Earth, called by their builders the “stairways to heaven,” pointing toward the infinite sky. It is up to us to complete their work. We owe it to the unnamed Cro Magnon women or men who painted those unimaginably breathtaking landscapes in the Lascaux Caves more than 150 centuries ago, and who held in their hearts the barest glimpse of a human destiny of unlimited possibility.

Posted in Humanity's Future in Space