Why is Obama right about going to Mars? Because going to Mars is just cool.
So yesterday, Obama channeled the spirit of JFK and issued a call to plan to have human beings walking around on Mars within a reasonable time-frame.
Now of course there are lots of things that the USA could spend money on instead of going to Mars. But the truth is that going to Mars is just cool. You may hear talk about the transferable technologies that will be developed along the way in the course of a Mars mission, and the practical applications drawn from the necessary research. But that’s not why people should go to Mars. You don’t do the cool things to solve practical problems. You solve practical problems to do the cool things.
Going to Mars will make us all feel more upbeat about the potential of the human animal. We will all of us walk a bit taller as a consequence. Going to Mars will be exciting – a dangerous project to quicken the pulse and make all of us feel a bit more alive. In short – going to Mars will inspire.
Some people might argue that going to Mars ought to be an international project rather than something undertaken unilaterally by NASA. As a defiant “Citizen of the World”, I’m naturally sympathetic to whatever project makes sympathy larger. When collective European technological wizardry managed to plant a probe on a comet, I felt proud to be European, a precious addition to my self esteem I’m shortly to be stripped of.
But at the same time, if NASA just wants to go to Mars on its own, then that’s fine too, in part because it showcases a wholly admirable notion of competitive patriotism. Instead of the competitive patriotism of hatred and stupidity that is so popular nowadays, a space race is a competition to see who can do something imaginative, difficult, and unprecedented. If an American citizen plants a flag on Mars, I will cheer because the vision of citizenship promoted by such an image will have a global resonance. I don’t have a citizenship at the moment, being currently stained and shamed by a passport denoting a failed state that decided this year that it hated itself (and others) too much be able to live any more. At a time like this, I will cheer any patriotic endeavour from any nation that does not involve insulting and killing other people.
The cost of the Martian shindig will be large. The 1960s space race was funded at a time when it was still believed that rich people had some of the same civic obligations as poor people and should pay for the public services they themselves used with taxation. The offshored trillions, taxed at a modest 25%, would fund quite an ambitious Martian programme.
This will not happen within the piratical global economy we live in – but it’s still something to think about.
And what will we do when we (by “we” I mean emphatically not me), get to Mars? Will we start to terraform? Will we make plans for further colonisation? Will we look back on Earth and realise the pettiness of our tribal divisions?
I don’t know. All I know is that it will be cool. And the aesthetic argument is always adequate and sufficient all on its own.