To Mars and Beyond!
In Defense of 21st Century Human Space Exploration, American-Style
by Kenneth Paul O'Connor
March 23, 2012
The film 2001: A Space Odyssey was released to theaters in April of 1968 and depicted a future in which humans had colonized the moon and were exploring the vicinity of Jupiter. Eleven years after it's time setting, that future we so casually imagined seems distant if not elusive. Much has hampered our efforts since we first reached for the stars. First there was there the close call of Apollo 13, and later the tragedies of Challenger and Columbia. Additionally, there has been a full slate of pressing concerns here on Earth to focus on. Will the dream of human beings setting foot on other planets ever be more than a science-fiction story?
I grew up during a time when space travel was a popular concept in both theory and practice. When the first space shuttle, Enterprise, took its maiden flight in 1977, I was an infant. When Challenger and crew met their sad fate in 1986, I was a nine-year-old. There was plenty of time in between for a boy my age to dream fearlessly of space travel and plenty of pop culture to aid him along. Star Trek and Star Wars may have been more fantasy than science, but the thought of flying spacecraft to other planets only seemed fantastic in the figurative sense. We knew that we would boldly go to galaxies far, far away... someday.
In the early 1980's, it wasn't yet a faded memory that humans had set foot on the moon, which last happened in 1972. We may have lost our appetite to send people to climatically-tolerable neighboring rocks, but we have made tremendous advances in our ability to peer deep into the wondrous chaos of outer space, and we have entirely conquered the area of space immediately surrounding Earth. With a naked eye on any clear night, if unspoiled by urban light pollution, satellites can be seen traveling in their orbits. Approximately 35,000 of them are up there, making our modern communication systems possible. Few still use a paper map when so many of us have a GPS. The science of space-worthy technology is already integral to our lives.
Mars has long been surmounted by our machines. The Soviets made a few crash landings there and American craft from Viking 1 and 2 of the 70's to Pathfinder of the 90's to Phoenix which landed on Mars in 2008 have taken pictures and collected data from its surface. What would a human voyage to Mars and back bring us, besides prestige to the nation whose space program succeeds in it? Considering all the money we spend on the Olympics and the World Cup, does it matter? Is the "we did it" factor not enough when it comes to interplanetary travel as opposed to setting a new record in the triathlon? Even if we never find any trace of life in that great red desert, we would know that we had become Martians ourselves.
NASA does in fact have a tentative goal of a sending a manned craft to orbit Mars in the 2030's. Once an orbiting mission is successful, a landing mission would not be far behind. A round-trip flight to Mars would take 400 to 450 days. It couldn't be worse than a tour of duty in Afghanistan. We'd never have a problem finding brave souls to do it, despite the obvious risks. It's more a matter of our collective will to fund our space program, and to use it wisely. So far, great expenditures such as the Hubble telescope and the International Space Station have paid us back with rich facts and colorful pictures of the infinite. Knowledge is itself an industry. It moves books off shelves and becomes paint for the artist. A mission to Mars would be a profitable event for many, to be sure.
In a time of economic hardship and tremendous government debt, it's difficult to promote public funding for projects that read like Hollywood screenplays, but the money is not being shot into space. It pays salaries, and thus all the things that salaries pay for. NASA has "created new markets and new technologies that have spurred our economy and changed our lives in many ways." When we strive to do things we haven't done yet, we learn things about ourselves. If NASA doesn't do it, someone else will. Why waste the existing infrastructure and potential?
Just today, March 23, 2012, the European Space Agency launched its third Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV-3) toward the International Space Station and the commentator on the live feed of the launch being broadcast on nasa.gov compared its look to an X-Wing Fighter of Star Wars lore. Fantasy is becoming reality and nations around the world are itching to take the lead. China, Japan and India have budding space exploration programs and Russia is still in the game. I hope that the world will compete in a friendly way, although it would be fun to show a little bit of hooliganism for science. The space revolution will be televised. Movie stars have gotten enough attention. Let's aim it at the real stars instead.