Don't turn away from the challenge of space

We need to send the breadth and depth of human insight to Mars

Special to the Observer

Published February 3, 2004

As the Earth returned this week to the same place in space where it was when the Columbia shuttle met its fate, our nation was turning its attention again to space. The two rovers we have on Mars metaphorically lift our spirits and suggest the opportunities that lie on the cosmic frontier. Our president has called for a return to the Moon and a manned mission to Mars.

About as close as I will ever come to space travel is knowing my friend Ron Parise. Ron and I went to graduate school together at the University of Florida.

Ron had left the rusting steel mills in Youngstown, Ohio, knowing that a real future was somewhere else. After grad school he joined Computer Sciences Corp., one of the myriad companies providing services to NASA. He intended to fly in space and got there by working on a project that would eventually fly in the shuttle and would need a payload specialist.

Ron's first mission was to have been the next flight after the doomed Challenger launch.. Not deterred, he would eventually fly twice -- first on the eventually ill-fated Columbia. His second endeavor was on Endeavor.

Is there any future for the rest of us in space? Are we going to build steel mills on the Moon or mine minerals and ice for fuel to go onward into deeper space? Is it worth the price?

The cost of space exploration has always been pitted against other needs here on Earth. How can we spend billions on space when we have staving people?

I would counter with two arguments. First, we will always have the poor. The NASA budget is dwarfed by the resources that would be needed to change that anyway. If we spend a hundred billion dollars on a Mars program, I can almost guarantee a high degree of success. I challenge anyone to show that such an expenditure will yield any such results in social programs.

Second, why can't the wealthiest civilization to ever have graced the planet publicly fund a presence at the frontiers of the arts and sciences? In public schools we have special programs not only for the academically challenged students but programs that push the top students to new levels. It is a recognition of our country's greatness that we spend some of our resources at the top level of our interests.

Can we build bases on both the Moon and Mars? The better question should be why we should bother going back to the Moon at all. A lunar base would supposedly be a place to mine and produce fuel and materials for going on to Mars and beyond. But the needed water, if it exists, lies buried in the deep, dark craters at the poles, protected from the evaporating heat of the Sun. Does that sound like a hospitable place to build a refinery or mill?

No. So, as far as the Moon is concerned, we've been there, done that and bought the T-shirt. Mars is reachable without a lunar pit stop. Building a lunar base would be equivalent to building Youngstown on the Moon.

With the success of the rovers why should we risk sending people to Mars? Here I disagree with some of my colleagues by thinking it would be a worthy mission. What we need on Mars is the breadth and depth of human insight and experience. That small sedimentary rock, perhaps with fossils, that a rover may simply drive over will catch the eye of a sharp geologist or paleontologist. Human eyes with that wonderful database of a human brain behind then are hard to beat for field work and serendipitous discovery. Artificial intelligence is at least decades away from that level.

Perhaps such explorers will find rocks that match the Martian meteorites found in the Antarctic several years ago. Maybe we will find that life came from Mars. We could all be Martians.

We spent a hundred billion dollars fighting Iraq and more than that rebuilding the nation we destroyed -- two or three times the estimated price of a manned mission to Mars where we could discover clues about ourselves and the origins of life's diversity.

Flatten a country: a quarter of a teradollar.

Visit Mars: a hundred gigabucks.

Discover life on another planet: priceless.

Like Ron's move from Youngstown, we sometimes must allow wanderlust to lead us to wonderful and yet unknown places. To turn away from the challenge of space would make the deaths of Columbia's astronauts seem pointless.

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