Going to #Mars!

Image from NASA via The Telegraph.

This thrills me:

We have set a clear goal vital to the next chapter of America’s story in space: sending humans to Mars by the 2030s and returning them safely to Earth, with the ultimate ambition to one day remain there for an extended time.

I love space exploration. I love astronomy. When I was a kid, I used to pore over old newspapers and magazines announcing the moon landing — newspapers and magazines my father had saved and put in a cabinet. (The only other periodicals he did this for were the ones announcing the Miracle Mets’ victory in the 1969 World Series, a once equally improbable event.) I watched sci-fi TV shows and movies and fantasized that one day I’d have a chance to ride in “2001’s” Pan Am space shuttle. It’s not for nothing that “2001” remains one of my favorite movies, more for its sense of awe and wonder than the cold creepiness of HAL 9000’s determination to knock off the human crew.

I’m probably too old, poor and out of shape to ever take a ride on a space vehicle, but that doesn’t mean I don’t follow launches with the excitement of a child.

A few years ago, I wrote a story about the romance of space for CNN. At the time, we were still recovering from the financial meltdown, and trips to the moon, never mind Mars, were far away from most people’s thoughts. I visited Huntsville, Alabama, the home of Space Camp, and spoke with Buzz Aldrin, the second man to set foot on the moon. (The Huntsville material was cut, as was an interview with “Packing for Mars” author Mary Roach, but strongly informed the final product. If you haven’t visited Huntsville, you should go!)

Aldrin was a fervent supporter of a Mars mission:

Aldrin sees a trip to Mars as a challenge to rivals such as the Chinese, another way for the U.S. to assert global leadership (shades of the old U.S.-Soviet space race) and stake a flag in the future.

“Why (go back to the moon) when it’s quite possible for us to explore a ‘romance of long duration’ — flying by comets, visiting small objects and then moving toward an entirely new planet that has much more livable conditions? That’s a bit more romantic from my standpoint,” he says, while scoffing at the word “romance.”

And I am, too. Yes, I can hear the protests: It will cost a fortune. It’s incredibly risky. It’s a foolish waste of time and money, especially when we have so many problems here on Earth. They’re the same arguments made against the ’60s space program.

Moreover, what President Obama is announcing is, in some ways, incremental. He’s talked about a Mars mission since 2010, at least. NASA released a report last year.

But still, it’s good to hear plans are moving forward.

Besides, arguments against space exploration ignore a couple of things. First of all, science begets more science. So many of the technologies we use today were jump-started by the push for the moon.

And then there’s that wonder. Just as Apollo 8’s view of the Earth gave this planet a reason to ponder our small place in the universe, so may a trip to Mars bring some needed perspective about our often petty struggles — and cast our minds to the future with hope and awe.

Ray Bradbury nailed it decades ago.

“Exploring space is our effort to become immortal,” he said. “If we stay here on Earth, human beings are doomed, because someday the sun will either explode or go out. By going out into space, first back to the moon, then to Mars, and then beyond, man will live forever.”



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