The Real Why — Futurist

This version of the essay appeared in the Sep/Oct 2003 edition of The Futurist.


Pioneer 10 is silent. The ancient vessel was the first spacecraft to fly by Jupiter in 1973. It was the first human artifact ever to leave our solar system, as it traversed the orbit of Pluto in 1983. It has continued outward into interstellar space for another two decades – a message in a bottle, floating on the currents of an infinite sea. But on February 26th, NASA announced that it had not received any signal from the tiny messenger for more than a month — and did not expect to hear from it again.

Perhaps someday, many decades from now, when technological advances enable us to travel much faster and much further through outer space, a future IASA will dispatch an interstellar cruiser to track down Pioneer 10, lasso it in, and bring it back to the Smithsonian. And perhaps much later still, just as we gaze in awe at the Great Pyramids of 5000 summers ago, so too 5000 summers hence might one of our descendants peer into her own remote past, at Pioneer 10, and ponder one of Homo Sapiens’ finest hours.

Following the tragic destruction of the space shuttle Columbia, many have brooded over why the space shuttle and the space station have never fired 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. Consequently, they’re going nowhere fast.

It took only 66 years to go from Orville and Wilbur Wright to Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong. But another 33 have now gone by (this summer is the Wright Centennial) and it’s hard to argue that we have much to show for it. How much farther might we venture in another 66 – if we only make up our minds to go?

Figuring out what caused the disintegration of Columbia, fixing it, and resuming the same operations won’t do a thing to fix this larger problem of purpose, this transcendent meaning so conspicuous by its absence. In the wake of the Columbia disaster, it’s time for humans to go somewhere again. And the obvious next somewhere is Mars.

Tragedy often contains the seeds of opportunity. The moment is ripe for President Bush – or perhaps a Democratic presidential candidate – to do what President Kennedy did so audaciously in 1961: set a deadline. A goal attached to a time certain will generate suspense, drive, and determination. It might just stimulate a critical mass of excitement that could cascade into an avalanche of political support. (Has any political candidate since the end of Apollo even tried to poll or focus group such a proposal?)

And a deadline that is plausible, dramatic, and highly symbolic is looming: the 50-year anniversary of the first landing on the moon – 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 decision to do so. Apollo took only eight. But the clock is ticking, and if we don’t make that commitment soon, the opportunity to do so within that half-century window will be lost.

We should not go to Mars primarily for the scientific discoveries, though these will undoubtedly be many and profound. We should not even go first and foremost to seek life – though that would surely be the single greatest discovery in all of human history. If the biochemistry made clear that Martian life derived from a separate and independent origin, it would strongly suggest that the universe is teeming with the stuff, and strongly imply that somewhere else it has evolved into sentience – that We Are Not Alone.

But the real reason we should go is that Mars is the next step to what the Space Frontier Foundation advocacy group calls “breaking out into the solar system.” Mars is the next stepping-stone on what the Planetary Society calls “humankind’s greatest adventure,” the next stop on the infinite journey, the next rung on the ladder to heaven. A human mission to Mars is indispensable to fully exploring our puny solar neighborhood, to establishing lasting colonies on multiple heavenly bodies, and eventually, literally, to reaching for the stars. Mars lies directly on the road toward making ourselves into what the National Space Society calls a “permanent spacefaring civilization.”

And 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 wipe out all life on Earth (indeed, most living things have in fact been wiped out several times by just such cataclysms in Earth’s past). God knows these days it’s easier still to envision scenarios by which we foolishly annihilate ourselves. But if a thousand years from now we have established a durable presence in several locations far distant from one another – throughout the solar system and beyond – it’s hard to imagine any apocalyptic event that could manage to eliminate us all. If Homo Sapiens can hang on until then, we will be as close to immortality as the universe itself.

When science fiction giant Arthur C. Clarke – who predicted so many 20th century developments – was asked in 1999 what one thing he never could have anticipated, he replied: “That we would have gone to the moon — and then stopped.” Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy of the 1950s, widely considered the greatest epic science fiction series, envisions several quintillion human beings dwelling in several million solar systems, so widely dispersed that fictional future anthropologists debate which among the millions was humanity’s original sun. “The man asks why,” says Robert A. Heinlein’s protagonist D. D. Harriman to his philistine associate in 1949’s The Man Who Sold the Moon. “I could tell you why, the real why, but you wouldn’t understand.”

Clarke and Asimov and Heinlein (whose widow and literary muse Virginia died just a couple of weeks before the loss of Columbia) are hardly incidental to this discussion. Science fiction has long inspired many of the real individuals who pushed the frontiers of possibility. German rocket visionary Hermann Oberth could recite Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon by heart. American rocket engineer Robert Goddard was utterly enchanted as a child by H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds. “Half the people in the space program were lured in by Robert Heinlein and those who followed his path,” says science fiction auth or Larry Niven today. “Josef Stalin may have influenced more people directly, but in the long run Heinlein may have — a greater effect on the future.”

We should go to Mars, and then beyond, for the same reason that Ptolemy and Copernicus and Kepler peered into the void. Because “all men by nature,” as Aristotle said in the opening line of his Metaphysics, “desire to know.” We should go for the serendipity, the unknown potential – as what President Kennedy called in his May 1961 speech “an act of faith and vision, for we do not know what benefits await us.” And we should go for the same reason that Columbia’s namesake 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 burning desire for eternal fame. We should go to Mars because we want 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 and purpose is to forestall Awful Things – new terrorist attacks, corporate meltdowns, international mischief by Saddam Hussein or Kim Jong-Il (or George Bush). But the purpose of a civilization is not just to prevent destruction, but to engage in creation. If we let ourselves be deprived of that, then the terrorists surely do win. 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 Osama bin Laden and his foul cohorts by going to Mars — and bringing a piece of the World Trade Center along.

We may in fact be remembered in 3003 for the space program and little else. In Michael Hart’s book The 100, where he audaciously ranks the 100 most influential figures of all time, John F. Kennedy makes the list – solely because of the impetus he gave to the moon program. Think Kennedy will be remembered in 1000 years for anything else? How many people today (after only 500) can tell you a single thing about Ferdinand and Isabella — beyond Columbus?

There are other, more prosaic reasons for going to Mars as well. One is that Mars will teach us a great deal about Earth. Comparative planetology can provide insights available through no other mechanism. Studies of the atmosphere of Venus played a critical role in awakening us to the threat of self-inflicted global warming. Examinations of Martian dust storms led directly to the hypothesis of nuclear winter.

A Mars program will also generate innumerable technological spin-offs, just like Apollo. If this inspires more youth to become scientists and engineers and inventors, they themselves will likely generate innovations ultimately worth far more than the cost of the program itself. Velcro 2.0, coming soon to a Home Depot near you.

The first mission to Mars will differ from Apollo in many important ways. Serious science can’t take place in just a few days, and the first astronauts on Mars will probably stay for several months. A robust rover will be essential, so the explorers can travel hundreds of miles from their landing site. While only one of the 12 men who walked on the moon was actually a scientist, most of the Mars crew will likely be professionally trained in disciplines like geology, meteorology, and biochemistry.

Perhaps space policymakers will also heed the advice of Dennis Tito, history’s first space tourist, and send along “individuals who represent various creative aspects of our culture” – writers, poets, philosophers, and artists.

And elaborate precautions will need to be devised to ensure against biological contamination – of us by possible Martian life forms, or of little green men by us. (Imagine if we discover that Martian organisms have indeed existed for billions of years — and we inadvertently wipe them all out within a few weeks of first contact.)

A human mission to Mars could be surprisingly inexpensive. In the 1990s NASA produced a “Design Reference Mission” — just in case they ever did get the funding. It estimated that a steady commitment of $3 billion per year – about 20% of the current NASA budget and less than 1% of the seemingly untouchable military budget – could send three complete round-trip missions to the Red Planet within 15-20 years. The Mars Society claims a leaner, scaled-down mission could be pulled off for half that amount. If we’re going to spend $300-$400 billion per year forever until the end of time on “defense”, can’t we spend a drop in the proverbial bucket for an undertaking worth defending?

Even this arguably modest amount of money would not all have to come out of the not-so-deep pocket of the American taxpayer. Although the U.S. government was the sole Apollo funder, a Mars program would almost certainly be funded multinationally, as the space station is today. And imaginative public/private financing schemes might also come into play. Mars Society founder Robert Zubrin has suggested that the whole thing might be funded by TV rights alone. Apollo gave TV rights to several networks for free – why not give them exclusively to one network, for a sizeable fee? Hey, if calling it the McMission to Mars is what it will take to get us there, more than a few will take an order of fries with that.

July 20, 1969 saw literally the first footsteps of the nascent Space Age. But for all its nobility, meaning, and magic, future generations may conclude that a vast historic mistake was made on that day. If there’s anything that should have been done on behalf of all the Earth, it was the first time a human set foot off the Earth. Aldrin and Armstrong looked up into the moon’s black sky at a single borderless planet. But they planted the flag of only part of that planet. They planted the flag of the United States. There is no record anywhere in NASA archives that any other alternative was even considered.

No moment could more vividly illustrate the 800-lb. gorilla paradox of the 20th century – enormous progress in science and technology and gadgets and gizmos, but stubborn stagnation in our social, political and moral advancement. We can put a man on the moon, but we can’t solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict after more than half a century? We can put a man on the moon, but we can’t figure out how to prevent 800,000 Rwandans from being slaughtered in ten short weeks in 1994? We can put a man on the moon, but we’re well on the road to 50 million AIDS deaths and 50 million more AIDS orphans – when all it would take to save them is a sufficient commitment of resources? One might say this means that humanity stands today at a state of technological triumph, but political adolescence.

Many Americans today possess a profound sense of human solidarity, a non-negotiable ethic of shared destiny, an intuition that we are all in the same boat on Spaceship Earth. An October 1999 poll found that a full 73% of Americans view themselves as “citizens of the world as well as citizens of the United States.” These people consider themselves both national patriots and planetary patriots. They may well pledge their allegiance to the flag of the United States of America. But they also pledge their allegiance to humanity.

Such sentiments of larger loyalties are hardly new. “I am not an Athenian nor a Greek,” said Socrates, “I am a citizen of the world.” During the darkest days of the Cold War Princeton political scientist Robert C. Tucker saw the first glimmerings of an “ethic of specieshood,” the nascent emergence of Voltaire’s “party of humanity.” “Our loyalties,” said Carl Sagan, “are to the species and the planet. We speak for Earth.”

A great many astronauts have expressed similar sentiments. From up there, they say over and over again, it looks like One World. “The thing is a whole! The earth is a whole!” said Rusty Schweickart. “When you go around the Earth in an hour and a half, you begin to recognize that your identity is with the whole thing.” “The first day or so we all pointed to our countries,” said Saudi Arabian astronaut Sultan Bin Salman Al-Saud, himself from a region as polarized as any in the world. “The third or fourth day we were pointing to our continents. By the fifth day we were aware of only one Earth.” Kalpana Chawla, born in India, looked down from Columbia’s last voyage at her subcontinental origins, but then decided to spend most of her time looking up. “When you look out at the stars and galaxies,” she said just days before she died, “you feel like you come not from any particular place, but from the solar system.”

Even Neil Armstrong himself gained such a larger perspective. Interviewed in 1979 for the tenth anniversary of Apollo 11, he was asked how he felt as he saluted the flag. “I suppose you’re thinking about pride and patriotism,” he replied. “But we didn’t have a strong nationalistic feeling at that time. We felt more that it was a venture of all mankind.”

So let us imagine a slightly different scene than Aldrin and Armstrong’s on, oh, April 12, 2019. The first passenger-bearing spacecraft has just set down on the Martian plain, near a gully in the long shadow of Olympus Mons: the tallest geological formation in our solar system, three times as high as Everest, so monstrous that an astronaut perched at the summit would essentially be in outer space. Five billion human souls sit transfixed, glued to television and computer screens – the single greatest moment in all history of shared human experience. The door opens. And the chosen one – perhaps today a sophomore at a high school in Ethiopia, practicing right now for her team’s big upcoming track meet this very 2003 spring – takes three cautious steps down the ladder, and then plants her boot squarely onto the surface of Planet Mars. And she says: “That’s one small step for one small woman. But it is one giant leap for the people of Planet Earth – of yesterday, today, and tomorrow. We come in peace, we come to explore, we come to endure. And we come on behalf of all the family of humankind. So today, here in the soil of Planet Mars, I plant the flag of Planet Earth.”

That single act, a decade or so hence, could become the defining moment of the 21st Century. It would be an infinitely precious gesture, one that would make all Earthlings feel a part of the venture. In the words of Loretta Hidalgo, co-founder of the annual Yuri’s Night World Space Party held on the double anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s first flight in space and Columbia’s first shuttle launch every April 12th: “It would bring together the best of humanity — in a way that is inspiring, inclusive and heroic.”

“The choice, as Wells once said, is the Universe or nothing,” said Arthur C. Clarke in the closing passage to his first book, Interplanetary Flight. “The challenge of the great spaces between the worlds is a stupendous one; but if we fail to meet it, the story of our race will be drawing to a close.” “Living systems cannot remain static,” says Wyn Wachhorst in his lyrical paean, The Dream of Spaceflight. “They explore or expire.”

Our first human on Mars will be followed by the rest of her crew, and then by more missions, and then by Mars Base Columbia, Mars Base Challenger, Mars Base Soyuz, and Mars Base Apollo One. And these in turn will be followed by the conquest of more planets, then by colonies on Phobos and Deimos and Ganymede and Titan, and then – who knows, perhaps with someone 4 years old today as a 124-year-old witness – by voyaging from our own solar system to another. De profundis, ad planatae, ad astra – from the Earth to the planets to the stars.

A wise society is one that looks more than half a lifetime in either direction. George F. Kennan, that wise man of American foreign policy, likes to observe that we confront and surmount our epochal challenges not just for the benefit of our descendants, but as a debt to our ancestors. Why else was Charlie Smith, a 124-year-old former slave, invited to sit in the VIP stands as witness to the night launch of Apollo 17 in 1972? Why else did Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon bring along with him on Columbia a small pencil sketch of the majestic earth as seen from the moon – drawn nearly three decades before anyone actually saw that sight by a 14-year old boy who didn’t make it out of Auschwitz alive?

Mars beckons us because of what 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 continue to explore the cosmos because it is our debt to Willie McCool, Judy Resnick, Roger Chafee, and Vladimir Komarov.

But it is also our debt to all those who have labored on the unfinished cathedral that is human civilization — Albert Schweitzer and Dorothy Day, Bolivar and Bach, Gutenberg and Galileo, Magellan and Michelangelo, Augustus and Ashoka. It is our debt to the slaves who sweated, toiled and perished to build the Great Pyramids – for thousands of years the tallest structures on Earth, pointing toward the infinite sky, called by their builders their “stairways to heaven.” It is up to us to complete their work. We go to Mars, and reach for the stars, because it is our debt to the unnamed Cro Magnon women or men who painted those unimaginably breathtaking landscapes in the Lascaux Caves a long 150 centuries ago, and who held in their hearts the barest glimpse of a human destiny of unlimited possibility.

Seven months before Aldrin and Armstrong walked on the moon, the astronauts of Apollo 8 were the first humans to leave Earth orbit and fly to the moon — and the first among us ever to look upon the whole Earth, suspended among the blazing stars. Scientist and author David Brin has suggested that these three fortunate souls were perhaps the first humans to grasp that that whole was more than the sum of its parts, that it was something deserving of our loyalty, our allegiance, our singular patriotism. On Christmas Eve 1968, mission commander Frank Borman read from the book of Genesis: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” Our first human on Mars may well read from the holy text of Christians, Muslims, and Jews as well – this time from the book of Exodus: “God,” she will read, “called to him out of the bush, ‘Moses, Moses.’ And Moses replied, ‘Heneni!’ ‘I am here!'”

Posted in Humanity's Future in Space