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.
IT'S IMPOSSIBLE TO KNOW just how much a manned mission to Mars would cost, but it is certain to run into the hundreds of billions of dollars. And, since ours is a world of competing priorities, we must ask, even of a concept as lofty as transcendence, is it worth it? The biggest obstacle here is less finding the money—in just the last few years, such sums have been "found" for two wars, prescription drugs for seniors, and repeated upper-bracket tax cuts—than it is combating the idea that such sums would be better spent on Earth. Powerful as it is, that argument is flawed. There will always be domestic priorities that could take precedence. A recent Tom Toles cartoon in the Post, for instance, showed a little girl in a wheelchair asking, "They're spending how much so a man can walk on Mars?" But, even though few government programs can truly stand up to the little-girl-in-a-wheelchair test, that hardly means they're irresponsible. We spend $137 million per year for the National Endowment for the Humanities, $604 million on the Smithsonian Institution, and $1.6 billion for National Park operations. We spend this money on things other than health care, anti-poverty efforts, and education not because those are unimportant, but because the extension of life cannot be all that life is, the eradication of economic poverty must not impoverish us intellectually, and education must extend well outside the classroom. Why go to Mars now? Is there really a pressing need? That all depends on whether you think the purpose of government—indeed, of civilization—is simply to make sure we get through the day for as many days as possible, or whether it is time to reach for something a bit more ambitious.
IT IS TRUE THAT HUMANS "explore" in many ways, and plenty of scientists examine the cosmos and the very nature of reality itself without taking their feet off the ground. But it is also true that information is not the same thing as experience. The very tactility of discovery, as opposed to simple knowledge, is part of what makes it vital. Last September, I drove to rural Virginia, where a group of amateur astronomers had gathered their telescopes to glimpse Mars during its closest approach to Earth in 60,000 years. With the naked eye, the planet was only a dot in the sky, vaguely orange but scarcely different from your average star. But, viewed through a telescope, the planet assumed character. A blurry white covered one tip--the southern polar cap—and a dark splotch marred its upper left: a dust storm. Watching the weather on another planet live and in color, I was--there is no other word—awed. In a society where "searching" now all too often refers to a trip to Google.com, such awe is sorely lacking. If we abandon our search for it, we condemn ourselves to a future of seeing things we have already seen, touching things we have already touched, going places we have already been. A manned mission to the Red Planet, then, is nothing less than a mission to rescue our appreciation for novelty and all that it inspires. After all, whoever said there's nothing new under the sun had obviously never been to Mars.
This article originally ran in the February 2, 2004, issue of the magazine.