On to Mars
Should we be heading towards Mars? Rand Simberg notes that the Phoenix's triumphant landing on Mars this past Sunday occurred on the 47th anniversary of President Kennedy's appearance before a joint session of Congress to propose an American mission to the moon "before this decade is out." He comments on the possible significance of what Phoenix finds -- or doesn't find -- to an eventual manned mission to the red planet:
This mission, like all Mars missions, is not just to answer pure science questions. It is also ostensibly a precursor to eventual human trips to Mars. The discovery that water is available in large quantities at the poles was encouraging to those who plan to “live off the land” there. But perhaps those who hope to one day be Martians themselves should also hope that Phoenix doesn’t find signs of life, at least current life. If it does, it’s not at all inconceivable that the planet would be put under quarantine from humanity so that we don’t contaminate it with our own life forms (this is a concern even for the robotic envoys, such as Phoenix, to the point that they are scrupulously sterilized prior to launch). Beyond that, for reasons having nothing to do with Mars, some say that we should hope that we are alone because to learn otherwise might be a bad omen for the human race.
As I noted a while back, I'm not convinced that the discovery of life on Mars -- or elsewhere -- is necessarily bad news. If Mars were to be quarantined, it would be bad news for those who planned to settle the planet, but the exciting news of finding life elsewhere in the solar system would be bound to mitigate that disappointment to some extent.
Assuming no life is found (ever) and no quarantine sets in, when do we start settling Mars? And how do we start?
Former NASA engineer Jim McLane recently proposed that we kickstart our settlement of Mars with a rather dramatic (some would say radical) first step: a one-man, one-way mission to Mars. Personally, I think this is a great idea - if you can find the right man (or woman) for the job, and if it truly sets in motion a wave of missions to Mars.
A single one-man, one-way mission to Mars, with no follow-up planned or executed, would be an exercise in nihilism. But the same mission intended as the first step of a long process of establishing ourselves on Mars would bring something back to space exploration that used to be its defining characteristic: heroism. That astronaut would be a hero if ever a hero has flown into space.
As McClane explains it:
I think people have forgotten how exciting the Apollo program was, and this would bring that excitement back. And it wasn’t just here in the US; the whole world was excited. This enthusiasm would be the greatest effect of a program that places a man on Mars, over and above anything else, whether it makes jobs, or stimulates the economy, or creates technology spinoffs. We’re all humans and the idea of sending one of our kind on a trip like that would be a wonderful adventure for the entire world. The whole world would get behind it.
I think he might be on to something. And I'm not alone. Nancy Atkinson, writing at Universe Today, notes that the original piece she wrote about McClane's outrageous plan has found its way around the world and has caught the attention of some would-be volunteers. Soldiers serving in the 101st Airborne Division in Afghanistan have read Atkinson's article and are ready to take up the call.
One of these soldiers, SFC William H. Ruth III, has written to propose the following:
Here is an ‘out of the box idea. Let the heroes of all our countries, for once, risk the ultimate sacrifice for something greater than one man’s idea. Maybe once let these men and women that rise every morning and say ‘today I will stand for something’ and say ‘evil will not prevail, not on my watch’. For once let them volunteer for us all, you never know, mankind, the human race. It might just catch on if we let it."
Will we falter at a hint of death or danger? Or will we do now what so many in all of the world’s history have done before us. NASA of all thinking societies should understand this. Would there even be an America or NASA if a man named Columbus had not pursued a dangerous and possibly deadly voyage to a new world? He certainly had to consider whether or not he would ever return home to see all those he loved so dearly. But what of those aboard his ships, those that left Spain knowing that they would never return. Those few that willingly risked all for the chance at a new world and a new future, could they have possibly known what effects they would have had on the future due to their sacrifices? Now can we have enough vision to see our destiny, can we, for a moment, see past our petty differences of race and religion to see…peace, prosperity and possibly a new world."
Imagine the possibilities. We start with a single mission, a single hero. Perhaps Ruth himself would be first. This initial one-way mission is followed by ships with slightly bigger crews -- say four to eight personnel -- who join the First Man on Mars and help him to establish a settlement there. We continue with one-way missions manned by soldiers from every nation on earth who want to participate, until we have created a serious and permanent foothold on the planet. Then the civilians begin to come.
It would be epic. It would be the greatest adventure in human history. Everything that has come before would pale in comparison. I love this idea. But sadly, I think we might be too "civilized" to attempt anything this daring. Is there room for this kind of heroism in this day and age? My heart say yes; my head says no way.