It's hard not to scoff at the president's call for a return to the moon, Mars, and "beyond" if for nothing other than its political transparency. The president's sudden dose of the vision thing immediately endeared him to the thousands of aerospace workers in Florida, while costing him almost nothing before he leaves office. But, despite its narrow opportunism, the president's plan is important, because it thrusts the prospect of a manned mission to Mars back into the public sphere.
One objection to a manned mission to Mars is that robotic craft could do the job just as well at a fraction of the cost--a compelling argument as we watch the Spirit rover successfully bound (or rather inch) over the surface of the Red Planet. On January 10, The Washington Post's editors wrote, "The success of NASA's latest Mars venture has proved the worth of unmanned missions, while manned space flight is exorbitantly expensive." The Los Angeles Times approvingly quoted physicist and space guru James Van Allen as saying that we could explore Mars with robots "at far less cost and far greater quantity and quality of results." Or, as Will Marshall, president of the Progressive Policy Institute, bluntly summed it up, "There's no real rationale for a manned space program."
Space-travel enthusiasts have always had trouble explaining why men must accompany their machines to other planets. As Hermann Oberth, a pioneer of rocketeering, observed, "For those who have never known the relentless urge to explore and discover, there is no answer. For those who have felt this urge, the answer is self-evident." In their attempt to articulate that urge, proponents of space travel often resort to platitudes. Last year, for example, after the shuttle Columbia disintegrated on reentry, President Bush said, "Mankind is led into the darkness beyond our world by the inspiration of discovery and the longing to understand. Our journey into space will go on." Such sentiments do nothing to sway Mars skeptics. As Anne Applebaum of The Washington Post asked in a January 7 column, "But why should it go on? Or at least why should the human travel part of it go on?" When Applebaum received a slew of angry e-mails from Mars buffs, she noted derisively that "most contained no rational arguments whatsoever. Instead, they cited the `religious awe' that space travel inspires, or the `human quest to explore and discover.'"
Applebaum mistakenly assumes that the benefits of a manned trip to Mars must be tangible if they are to be "rational." But it doesn't take a historian to know that the benefits of exploration are often impossible to forecast, nor does it take a philosopher to understand that those benefits can be affective, as well as cognitive. Exploration is valuable precisely because it is a "quest" that evokes "awe," precious not only for its visceral thrill but for the perspective it proffers. It forces us to question the future of our race, the maturation of civilization, and the reason for human existence. Such questions may seem indulgent, even silly, when contrasted with the immediate, practical demands of daily life, but that does not make them less important. If we do not ask them, we lose the opportunity to transcend the current and the mundane and imagine what we want the future to hold.