He wants Americans to return to the Moon, but it’s going to take longer to get there than it did the first time under John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. To boldly go where Democrats have taken us before, only slower. George W. wants to take us to Mars as well, but when that will happen is anyone’s guess… before or after we get win the War on Terror? The old saying in the aerospace industry is, “No bucks, no Buck Rogers,” and George W. hasn’t requested much from Congress to fund his vision. It’s vision on the cheap, like buying a pair of reading glasses at a supermarket.
Some Democrats who would step into his shoes next year would also take up this weakly-held baton of space leadership. Dennis Kucinich has said that he would triple NASA’s budget. If that sounds extravagant, it’s not. It would return the NASA budget to about half of what it was at the peak of the Apollo program. Recently, Hillary Clinton has made some strong statements in support of the human exploration of the solar system. On the other hand, Barack Obama would delay the Constellation program by five years, which, given its already snail’s pace, amounts to a less than candid way of saying he would kill the program. Other presidential candidates, both Democratic and Republican, seem not to have given space policy much thought. Indeed, except for Clinton’s, none of the official campaign websites mentions NASA or human space exploration.
As I have written elsewhere, there is a libertarian, no-holds-barred free enterprise vision of space development. There is also a neoconservative rationale for militarizing space. A progressive vision of space to counterbalance these has yet to be articulated to a comparable level of prominence. This is of particular importance to California as a leader in the aerospace and high tech industries.
Profit is not the only reason to go into space; money is not the only measure of value. National prestige can sustain a certain level of effort for non-military programs over a period of decades; in the United States, that level has been about one percent of the federal budget. Military programs to project national power can command several percent of the federal budget. A politically-motivated display of national technological power may cause a technocratic spike in space activity.
If there were no money to be made in space, if there were no national security strategies in space, it is true that many would shrug and say, “What use is it?” But it is also true that some would understand that this tiny Earth of ours is subject to forces far above its atmosphere. Earth is in outer space, therefore we live in outer space. Regardless of whether we take a moment from our mundane existence to reflect on that fact, it is nevertheless fact, a fact that the dinosaurs could not comprehend as the Cretaceous Period went out with a bang 65 million years ago.
Developing a spacefaring culture is a matter of survival, not just to gain the ability to detect and deflect asteroids and comets on a collision course for Earth, but to escape the resource constraints of our limited planet. There are perhaps 30 years of petroleum left; let’s hope that by the time it runs out, commercial fusion power (perhaps fueled by the Moon’s helium-3) or solar power satellites are up and running, waiting for the baton to be passed. If not, the Great Machine on which Earth’s billions depend could shudder to a halt. Given the global population of 800 million that a rudimentary industrial economy supported a couple of centuries ago, collapse of the Great Machine could mean death for ninety percent of Earth’s population toward the middle of the 21st century, death by starvation, opportunistic diseases, and resource wars. I am not saying that the end of the world is nigh, nor am I saying that the only path to avoiding the Apocalypse leads into space, but I am saying that Earth-based solutions to the end of oil may not be entirely adequate. In space, there is the possibility of developing other options, and it would be wise to have them available should we need to exercise them. While the business case for space tourism pioneering cheap and large-scale spacelift capability is questionable, the case for keeping the Great Machine running is obvious.
But even if spacefaring were not a matter of survival, we would still need to go into space, because the answers to our very existence are out there, and curiosity is one of the strongest of human traits. Where did we come from? How did we get here? Who else is out there?
For more than a century, these questions have been part of the public discourse about outer space. Inspired by the speculations of Camille Flammarion (1862; 1893), Percy Greg (1880), Percival Lowell (1895; 1906; 1908), Kurd Lasswitz (1897), and H. G. Wells (1898), the optimism and confidence of Victorian civilization took it almost as axiomatic that it was on the verge of making “Contact” with a sentient species on Mars. At the turn of the 20th century, the New York Times reported Nikola Tesla’s plans to send radio waves to Mars and communicate with its inhabitants (1905). As we better acquainted ourselves with Mars in the scientific sense in the course of the 20th century, there came, as Wells wrote, “the great disillusionment.” We came to realize that in terms of sentient species, we are alone in the solar system. Yet a faded echo of Lowellian Mars remains. We cling to the hope of a neighboring planet that harbors, if not canals and an advanced civilization, at least some primitive forms of life. If Mars contains even nanobacteria — or indisputable evidence of past life of the simplest forms–this will profoundly change our conception of our place in the universe. If there isor wasanother Genesis here in our own solar system, then life must be common throughout the universe, and “Contact” with another civilization is therefore inevitable.
Do we need to send humans to Mars to discover this? No, not necessarily. It is possible that robotic missions to Mars could make such a starting discovery. But machines alone are not as capable as humans and machines working together in situ. So, if robots do not find life on Mars, the question remains open, even if just a crack. Eventually, we humans must go to Mars ourselves to definitively satisfy our curiosity.
If Mars is dead now, but was once alive, understanding how Mars died may give us a crucial understanding of how close we are coming to killing the Earth. Knowing Mars will allow us to calibrate our knowledge of Earth. As forbidding an environment as we have come to know Mars to be in the past few decades, it is nevertheless the most Earthlike planet in the solar system, the most readily accessible from Earth, and given sufficient technology and infrastructure, it will be able to support human life.
Is it worth spending tens of billions, possibly hundreds of billions of dollars, to send humans to Mars? In considering this prospective question, it is useful to ask a retrospective one: was it worth it to send humans to the Moon?
There are certain indelible images of the age of photography: Battleship Row in Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941, the Zapruder film of Dealey Plaza on 22 November 1963, the twin towers of the World Trade Center on 11 September 2001. These not only capture specific events, but also define the specific locales and eras in which they occurred. But the images of the Earth that we brought back from the Moon are timeless and universal, because they are the first images of all of us. Ever since then, because of those images, we have looked at ourselves, each other, and the Earth in a new way. The image of the full Earth brought back by the last crew to return from the Moon is an enduring icon of environmental responsibility and human unity. Was it worth going to the Moon to bring back even one of those photographs of Earth? I believe that it was.
The most important thing that we discovered on the Moon was part of ourselves. In the few hours that a few of us spent on the Moon between 1969 and 1972, we became better Earthlings. As the poet Archibald MacLeish wrote, we were “riders on the Earth together.” We realized that we were our brother’s keeper, and we remembered that God had appointed us stewards of the Earth. And yet, a third of a century later, we must reflect on how pitifully less we have done with that revelation than we should have. It is high time that we journeyed outward to that distant perspective, to see again how close we really are to each other, and to relearn those lessons that have faded with the passing of a generation. There are new lessons to be learned on Mars. There are new poems waiting for us on Mars.
And then, it is on to Europa, on another quest for life.
Civilizations have risen, fallen, and in time others have risen in their place, but this time the stakes are greater. If, for some reason, our technological civilization should collapse, either because of nuclear war, pandemic, climate change, cosmic impact, or resource depletion, we can never pass this way again. No previous culture has been the massive consumer of non-renewable resources that ours is. Each decade that passes, we must dig deeper and drill farther to extract the materials that fuel the Great Machine. The advance of technology continually extends our reach for these resources, but these advanced methods would be far beyond the grasp of a post-apocalyptic agrarian culture trying to make another go of it. What we think of as non-renewable resources actually are renewable, of course on a geologic time scale. Left to itself, the Earth would again form subterranean pools of petroleum. Another Industrial Revolution might be possible on this planet, but only for a species as far removed from us in the future as the trilobites are in our past. Our civilization has the one and only chance the human race will ever have to reach beyond this planet and establish itself elsewhere in the universe. If we miss this opportunity, our species will be bound to the Earth until we become extinct.
If, on the other hand, we survive the various threats to the progress of technological civilization, we will see a branching of the human timeline. Humans will go to live and work indefinitely on orbiting space platforms, in lunar settlements, on Mars, and then out to the planet-sized moons of the gas giants. The process of inhabiting and thriving in ever more extreme environments is the natural extension of the coldward course of progress, the process by which humans left their tropical home-of-origin and ventured into the temperate and polar zones. The experience the solar system explorers, pioneers, and settlers will gain will pave the way to the stars and beyond. As visionary scientist Carl Sagan (1995) pointed out, this gets the human eggs out of the single basket in terms of any sort of catastrophic mass extinction event. It also gets our eggs out of the basket in terms of the natural processes of passive extinction, where we lose so much genetic vigor that we can no longer cope with our constantly changing single planetary environment. Because of the distances involved alone, not to mention the effects of wholly new planetary environments, in journeying outward we set in motion new speciation and differentiation of the Homo sapiens line. For our species to survive, we must diffuse into the cosmos. We must engage the grand environment, and who can say for how long our window of opportunity will remain open?
On Earth, the best we can look forward to is a future of husbanding limited resources, some renewable, others inexorably dwindling. Although reaching beyond Earth in a sustained effort does not lessen our responsibility to manage Earth responsibly, it opens possibilities as yet unfathomable. The promise of space, although easy to oversell and challenging to fulfill, is impossible to abandon.
Thomas Gangale is an aerospace engineer and a former Air Force officer. He is currently the executive director at OPS-Alaska, a think tank based in Petaluma, where he manages projects in political science and international relations. He is the author of From the Primaries to the Polls: How to Repair America’s Broken Presidential Nomination Process, published by Praeger.