Dedicado a Rafa.
An article on CNN.com appeared last April 9th, entitled “Mars can wait. Oceans can’t“. In that article, the author expresses his preference for the exploration of the Earth’s oceans instead of manned missions to Mars. He believes that sending people to another planet amounts to a waste of money, since robotic planetary probes are able to do exploration work at a much lower cost, without need for food and all the requirements necessary on a human mission to protect the crew from the hazards of space, like large doses of radiation.
Although the article does not state it explicitly, it is possible to infer that the author is concerned about the use of public funds to finance a Mars mission. Similar viewpoints have been expressed before, in opposition to the design of any ambitious project aimed at landing humans on Mars. The usual justification for such notions is that the exorbitant (no pun intended) amount of money needed for an interplanetary trip would be better spent on solving problems here on Earth. As it happens, many policy makers follow a similar line of reasoning when it comes to allocating funds for either basic or applied scientific research: why spend vast amounts of money on science that does not have an immediate application – they argue – when there are more pressing problems that could be solved if scientists dedicated their time to them?
The Earth’s oceans are indeed mysterious and wondrous; it is often said that we know less about the ocean bottom than about the surface of the moon. Just like space travel, deep-ocean journeys represent a formidable technical challenge. But if we are to learn more about the role that oceans play in the Earth system, and about the different lifeforms that are able to thrive under extreme marine conditions, we certainly need to explore and study the seas in more depth, as it were. However, there shouldn’t be a dichotomy between Mars and Earth’s oceans, just as there shouldn’t be a dichotomy between basic and applied science.
To say that going to Mars can wait is like saying that magnificent discoveries can wait; that igniting the imagination of young people can wait; that the future of humanity can wait. It is a fact that Earth’s population increases as time goes by, and Earth’s resources will not be able to sustain tens of billions of people. Human kind will need to expand to survive, and it won’t be the first time it does it. True, traveling to and eventually colonizing another planet is nothing like sailing across an ocean on Earth in the fifteenth century. Both endeavors require planning for the known unknowns, and carefully-crafted guidelines to deal with unknown unknowns. But leaving the boundaries of our home planet requires technical and scientific understanding of different procedures and environments that are not always reproducible here on Earth. A spaceship requires a complex life-support system just to keep the travelers alive, in addition to food and supplies. And we still don’t understand the adverse effects of prolonged weightlessness on the human body.
In spite of the major technical, physiological and financial hurdles, we can not turn our backs on the human spirit of exploration. Whether it is the bottom of the ocean here on Earth or the surface of another planet, we must not fall into the trap of having to choose between exploring one site versus another. We simply must explore. The mantra that it is too costly to send people to interplanetary space and that those funds should be used on terrestrial problems instead, is basically flawed. We all know that allocation of public funds never leaves all parties satisfied, and there are many government projects on Earth that contribute little to the advancement of society (government bailouts during the 2008 economic meltdown could’ve easily funded a significant portion of a manned mission to Mars, or exploration missions to study marine life in the deepest waters). We have the technology to send a human mission to Mars. We have the motivation. If an announcement was made today to request applications for people to travel to Mars, the response would be overwhelming. It is just too exciting an opportunity to explore our nearest planetary neighbor (and the most Earth-like) that we have before ourselves. And it’s not only scientific exploration that has a stake here. Think about the commercial and industrial opportunities that will arise once we learn how to travel safely and efficiently between Earth and Mars. Transport, prospecting, life support systems, habitat design, terraforming strategies… all can flourish as necessary industries in the effort to expand human presence in the solar system.
Private companies are already tackling the difficult problem of providing safe and cheap transport to low Earth orbit. Indeed, SpaceX is about to launch the first commercial capsule to rendezvous with the International Space Station. And it is no secret that the company has Mars as its ultimate goal. Its CEO, Elon Musk, has publicly acknowledged his belief in a multi-planetary human civilization (watch a video of Elon Musk appearing on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart). Government agencies are no longer the only entities working to achieve access to space. Private citizens now realize that they too can contribute to explore space, through entrepreneurship or non-profit organizations. In the latter category, Astronauts4Hire stands out as the first organization to have developed a training course for commercial astronauts.
So whether we should explore Mars or our oceans is a moot point. We should explore both, and let the people interested in doing either perform their job. What needs to be done is to raise awareness of the importance of these and other exploration efforts, which all contribute to forge scientific and engineering careers, and which excite the imagination of our youth and inspire people to push boundaries, both personal and collective. Do our oceans hold many mysteries that can tell us much about how our planet works? Yes. Does Mars hold the clue to the origin of life? It’s possible. Both questions are extremely important, and we can not, from the standpoint of our human curiosity and survival, afford the luxury of dismissing one potential discovery over another.