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Mars or Bust

written by Chris Ferenzi on February 04, 2004 | contact me
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President Bush
President Bush
Credit: NASA
In response to the Columbia tragedy last February, President Bush remarked that "our journey into space will go on." On January 14, 2004, nearly one year later, his words ring true. Whereas President Kennedy in 1962 called for the U.S. to land a man on the moon within a decade, Bush has done something far grander. For the first time in history, the United States of America has firmly committed itself to a sustained human presence beyond low earth orbit. We will return to the moon by 2015 as preparation for further human exploration of the solar system.

This is a speech that I can honestly say I have waited my whole life to hear and although I know I should be thrilled at the prospect of a NASA that finally has a clear focus, I cannot help but feel cheated. I believe the president has made the wrong decision in choosing to make the Moon and not Mars the centerpiece of his new space vision.

The Moon is a dead world. It always has been and it always will be. Mars, conversely, was once a warm and wet planet. There is a good possibility that life once existed there, and may still even today, deep within the crust or ice deposits. As scientists have seen here on Earth, life is tenacious and can survive in the harshest of conditions: the rims of volcanoes, the inside of rocks in arctic deserts, and even on the inside of a nuclear reactor. So, why not on Mars? Indeed, if life has existed or still does exist on Mars, then the possibilities for life beyond our solar system are endless. While robots are efficient at what they do, they cannot think and make decisions on their own, they do not have hunches or gut feelings, and they will not be forever changed by the discovery of life off of Earth. The only way we will know for certain is by sending humans to investigate.

The purpose of sending humans to Mars is much more than pure science, however. The Red Planet offers literally, a whole new world of opportunity. With roughly the same dry land mass as Earth, our red neighbor could support a new branch of self-sustained human civilization. Through a simple chemical reaction, hydrogen brought from earth could be reacted with Mars’s atmosphere to produce rocket fuel and water: one a necessity for spaceflight and the other for sustaining human life. Early settlers could grow crops in greenhouses and construct surface dwellings from a form of concrete based on the Martian soil. The ultimate goal would of course be to terraform Mars so that humans could live in the open air. That is to say, make Mars like earth by causing the same temperature-raising atmosphere-thickening greenhouse effect that we inadvertently began here on Earth.

By establishing a permanent off-world settlement, the human race would become a multi-planet species capable of surviving an extinction-level event on Earth, such as a repeat of the asteroid collision that annihilated the dinosaurs, or somewhat less apocalyptic, overpopulation. As science fiction author Larry Niven said, "the dinosaurs became extinct because they didn't have a space program. And if we become extinct because we don't have a space program, it'll serve us right!" Granted, we do already have a space program but what we need is a space program that puts human colonization as one of its primary goals.

President Bush chose to mention Mars fleetingly in his speech, a total of four times, and then, only as a possibility in the vague category of "ever more ambitious missions" that would inevitably follow after a return to the moon. If President Bush’s goal is, as he said, to "inspire our young people to study math, and science, and engineering and create a new generation of innovators and pioneers," I am sure he will succeed. For a moment, however, imagine what he could have inspired by proposing the beginning of a new world – something entirely possible without a detour to the moon. Take risks, Mr. Bush. Be bold. Commit the U.S. to something truly worthy of risking human life. For now, I must be content with the lunar surface which I am happy to say is more than anyone could have hoped for a year ago. As the president said, "We do not know where this journey will end, yet we know this: human beings are headed into the cosmos."

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