Today, NASA landed its most advanced rover ever on the surface of another planet. Theis the fifth such rolling robot the space agency has sent to the red planet, and when the mission is over, it will have cost nearly $3 billion.
With a pandemic bringing everyday existence on the surface of our own planet tosince humans entered the space age several decades ago, it’s fair to wonder why we’re devoting any resources to sending our best tech to explore a cold, dead desert planet bathed in radiation.
There are actually a number of arguments that range from the philosophical to more practical. Here are three for those who can’t fathom how sending a nerdy dune buggy carrying a tiny helicopter on a 100-million-mile road trip is justifiable.
The fragility of our planet
There’s some evidence that suggests our two nearest planetary neighbors, Mars and Venus, were. Today, they’re both , though the dangers of Mars are at least theoretically manageable through technology and perhaps some ambitious terraforming.
Perseverance landed in Jezero Crater, which is thought to have once been the site of a large river delta flowing into a crater lake. Conditions may have been right for life, which the rover hopes to find evidence of.
But something happened. Mars lost much of its atmosphere and it dried up and became the colder, inhospitable world we know today.
Somewhere in this past there might be some lessons and cautionary tales for earthlings. If our two closest neighbors were transformed from more friendly climes to the relative hellscapes they are today, we should want to know more about what happened. It’s certainly worth more than one visit.
We imagine Earth as a big floating ball teeming with life, but the reality is more tenuous. When viewed from orbit, a greenish line of glowing oxygen marking the edge of our atmosphere is visible above our planet. This glowing line reveals the true fragility of our planet’s habitable zone, which is not the entire planet, but rather a small bubble on its surface extending from roughly sea level to a few miles in altitude, and not really including the polar regions, either.
When seen this way, it almost feels as though that bubble could easily pop. It happened on Mars, so maybe it could happen here.
Doing the hard things because they are hard
I’m paraphrasing John F. Kennedy — doing the hard things because they are hard — speaking about the Apollo project to put humans on the moon. It’s not an entirely honest justification for spending the big chunk of the US budget that was dropped on NASA to get us there, however.
The dawn of the space age, the Apollo program and the breathtaking speed with which we went from fully earthbound to hitting golf balls on the moon was motivated in no small part by.
It’s easy to look back and think that we wasted a significant chunk of our gross domestic product on a Cold War space race that was more about ego and national pride than science and exploration. It’s a fair criticism. But whatever the motivation, the results were more than just bragging rights and a flag in the Sea of Tranquility.
By going to space, we have revolutionized life on Earth.
The ways this is true are too numerous to list, so think of just one: What began with the terrifying (to Americans) successful launch of the Soviet bucket of bolts named Sputnik eventually created our modern lifestyle that depends on thousands of successor satellites beaming all our information, images, transactions and communications around the world at light speed.
What started as technological muscle flexing between global powers has changed countless aspects of the daily life of billions of humans.
Exploring Mars involves overcoming countless challenges through engineering and innovation, not to mention Perseverance and Ingenuity. What we learn from the successes and failures of meeting those challenges may spark the next revolution that will make life in 2071 beyond anything we can imagine right now.
Elon Musk has a vision
You’ve already heard this one. Elon Musk, one of the richest dudes in history, wants toand make humans a “multiplanetary” species or something like that. Part of this argument is that Earth is not nearly as safe and secure as it seems. Massive solar flares, impact by a comet, nuclear annihilation, environmental collapse and perhaps catastrophes we haven’t even thought of are all very much possibilities, so it makes sense to have a backup plan.
That’s the pessimistic version of this case that’s easiest to argue. But we rarely hear the other side of this vision argued, which is more in line with the Star Trek ethic: “To boldly go…”
These days it can be hard to even talk about setting up shop on Mars because the words I might use to describe such an activity have become justifiably taboo — words like colonize or settle or occupy. It’s true that the history of human expansion is littered with horrors, and Musk using the fear of an uncertain future to sell a new kind of colonialism does give me pause.
But I don’t think that’s the right way to look at it, and it’s not how the people behind Perseverance think about it. The mission’s goals are strictly about scientific discovery and technological demonstration. So much so that some of the wonder of what’s actually being accomplished can get lost.
Think about how you, as an individual, have grown as a person each time you visit a new place or experience something new. Your first day of school, first time outside your town or state, first plane ride, first time abroad, etc.
I remember one particular jet-lagged morning in my 20s in a dirt-cheap hostel in Thailand waking up before dawn and walking around a little neighborhood in Bangkok. Around every corner was something unfamiliar: words I couldn’t understand, things being sold as food I never thought of as edible, people doing activities I couldn’t identify as exercise or prayer or something in between.
It became clear that morning that I knew very, very little about the wider world. When I finally die or get uploaded to the cloud, I will hopefully be a bit less ignorant, but the same basic statement will certainly still be true.
Going to Mars and beyond could be the same sort of eye-opening experience for humanity as a species. Becoming multiplanetary doesn’t have to be about having a backup plan, it could be about evolving and becoming better, wiser and a little less ignorant about the universe and our place in it.
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