I was 21. And I vividly remember newscaster David Brinkley, with his distinctive twang, calling July 20, 1969 “a date that will be remembered as long as people remember anything.”
We have always been a race of explorers. Hillary said he climbed Everest “because it is there.” We recently saw a NOVA program about how humans spread to every corner of the Earth. How did early peoples conquer the Pacific? We were shown their boat-making and navigational prowess, that got them all the way to remote Hawaii and Easter Island – tiny specks in a vast nothingness. But how did they know those islands were even there? Someone had to set out first, without knowing, to find them. Imagine getting in that boat.
Setting foot on the Moon took it to another level. Brinkley was right, and so was Armstrong: a giant leap, yet only a first step on a new and monumental journey. This was a rite of passage.
Since then, the journey seems stalled, if not exactly abandoned. Half a century ago, it was spearheaded by government, necessarily so in light of the cost. Since then, governments don’t really have time for the vaulting ambition of space travel, having become mired instead in a more mundane concern trying to reconcile somehow the contradictions of welfare state politics.
But of course human beings are not just creatures of politics and government, and the same impetus that propelled ancient Polynesians across the Pacific still pushes us toward more distant destinations.
The Economist recently profiled the Mars project of Elon Musk’s SpaceX, a private company. The aim is to make available, in coming decades, $200,000 Mars tickets. This would be cheaper than the Apollo program’s cost to get men to the Moon – 50,000 times cheaper in fact. But SpaceX is developing serious plans for actually accomplishing its goal. They entail a BFR – a technical term, it stands for “Big Fucking Rocket” – dwarfing previous rockets, and reusable besides – to boost on its way a smaller vehicle carrying 100 passengers, which could double as temporary housing once they reach Mars. Necessary supplies and equipment would already have been dropped by previous missions. Thus would begin the human occupation of Mars.
Musk sees this as a much-needed “Plan B” for humankind, lest Earth become uninhabitable for one reason or another – as Cassandras keep warning. But The Economist says it’s hard to imagine circumstances in which making Mars livable isn’t much harder than making Earth livable. (Though that was before Trump’s election.)
Anyhow, “Plan B” isn’t the real reason to go to Mars. It is, after all, there. What more reason do we need? We will go there just as the Polynesians went to Easter Island.
The Economist also says that while some adventurous souls undoubtedly would undertake the huge sacrifice such colonization would entail, to become truly self-sustaining Mars would need a population of around a million, and that would be a heavier lift. And, for all Musk’s hubris, the challenge of getting even one person to Mars does remain enormous.
But again I quote our species motto: the difficult we do at once; the impossible takes a little longer. And I remember that some individuals who once deemed powered flight impossible lived to see men fly to the Moon.