The year is 2150; your great grandchildren wake up from their hyper-sleep pods on the surface of a distant asteroid, rich in precious metals, ready to toil in backbreaking labor. All of this so that Elon Musk’s cloud conscious neuralink android can buy a new space yacht. A scary thought, even if a little far fetched.
Now picture this: Technological innovation did not progress any further than the 1960s. That is another timeline I personally would not like to live in. The widely held stance that we should focus on issues on Earth before looking out toward space is, in my opinion, shortsighted, and it does not give due credit to the Apollo program, which is responsible for so much of what we have now.
The effort to put a human on the moon posed an engineering problem that required giant leaps in innovation. Among the inventions that came directly from Apollo tech are vacuum sealed food, insulin pumps, fire fighting equipment and shock absorbers in everything from bridges to sneakers, not to mention portable computers. There was also a traceable boom in students pursuing STEM majors around the excitement of the Apollo program, and that indirect impact on innovation is incalculable.
A mission to Mars poses an even greater engineering challenge and solving it will likely result in an even greater boom in innovation. The trip to Mars is long and we certainly do not have all the problems worked out yet, but the technology that we would develop in order to accomplish that goal would undoubtedly help us here on Earth. Innovations in solar power, energy storage and agriculture are some of the most obvious results of the tech required to sustain a multi-year trip to Mars. All of those innovations would directly serve humanity, lessen our reliance on fossil fuels and create more reliable food sources. Sending humans to Mars could save the Earth.
Some worry that space cannot be explored without the exploitation of laborers who would go out to build the billionaire’s paradise on Mars, or extract natural resources from the asteroid belt. I believe that is a valuable discussion to have, as I certainly do not want my grandchildren to have to sell their lives to AstroCorp. However, we are simply nowhere near the technological capabilities necessary to pillage and plunder from other celestial bodies.
Perhaps going to Mars will get us closer to those capabilities, but unfortunately science will always be a double edged sword. No nitrogen fertilizer without chemical weapons, no nuclear power without nuclear bombs. Something we can be more confident in is that billionaires will not ever be able to use the planet as an escape plan. Humans cannot survive there long term, let alone intergenerationally.
Even without considering the absolute dearth of essential resources, Mars is inhabitable for atmospheric, electromagnetic and gravitational reasons, and to begin to talk about the potentialities of terraforming is absurd. Those that go to Mars will not be celebrity friends of Jeff Bezos on a vacation or Elon Musk and his thirty six children and their mothers (if he would even take them) escaping the rising sea levels. They will be astronauts, well trained scientists, willing to sacrifice everything in devotion to a common goal for humanity.
When Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped foot on the surface of the moon, they knew there was a chance that they would not make it back up to Michael Collins in the command module. President Nixon had a speech prepared by Bill Safire if that would have been the case. There are many today willing to take that same risk for, as The Safire Memo put it, “mankind’s most noble goal: the search for truth and understanding.” The universe is not outside the Earth; the Earth is within the universe. Learning about what’s up there will always help us down here. People should see the significance in attempting to explore the stars.