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
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
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
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
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.