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Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Let's Not Go To Mars

So it's a slow day and I'm talking with one of my sons, who brings up Elon Musk's latest presentation on how we humans are going to colonize Mars.  It's a fascinating subject, I admit, but at one point in the conversation, my son asked me if I'd ever want to go to Mars.  My answer was simple and direct:

Why the f*ck would I ever want to go to Mars?

I admit, it's difficult enough to get me out of the house for a quick dinner, so it should come as no surprise that journeying to a distant planet is not exactly my idea of a good time.  More to the point, I cannot for any good reason, fathom why anyone needs to venture to Mars.

Spare me the misty-eyed romanticism of a Star Trek soliloquy.  I get the whole image of boldly going where no man has gone before and all that stuff.  I understand what's being sold to the public, because every other movie trailer is chock full of CGI effects that make space travel seem fun, adventurous and somewhat easy.

But there's a huge disparity between what's being sold to you and what's really going to happen if and when we ever try to slip the surly bonds of Earth for the red planet.  Let me explain:

Historically, human exploration has never been anything more than man's fulfillment of self-interest.  Fish crawled out of the slimy ooze looking for better food and hairy apes migrated to cooler climes for better weather. I get that. But if you know your history, after that, virtually all human migration surpasses mere self-interest, and is propelled by commercial enterprise

Remember discovering the New World? Do you still buy into legends of the pilgrims motivated by religious freedom?  Or have you grown up to accept that there were truckloads of money to be made exploiting a whole continent overflowing with raw materials?  The expeditions into North America, Asia, Central and South America were launched by governments and public and private companies, like the Dutch East India Company. I  promise you, none of those entities recruited, paid and sacrificed their crews for the romantic notion of human expansion.  These guys all wanted their cut of the loot, no matter where they had to go or who they had to kill when they got there.

Going to Mars is no different, except there's nobody there to kill.  Believe me, you and I and your grandchildren aren't going to be making reservations at the Asteroid Hilton any time soon. The first humans on the moon won't even be human, they'll be corporations like Google, SpaceX and Amazon, each carving out its territory as part of its deal with the government as private contractors, probably for mineral rights, because in case you haven't noticed, nothing grows on Mars.

Think about this for a second.  As far as we know, Mars has only two things to welcome your ship when it lands:  Rocks and a poisonous atmosphere.  That's it.  Even if you brought the wife and kids, there'd be no place to go and nothing to do other than die of asphyxiation, which you could do just as easily here on Earth without having to pay for the space travel.  

Of course, there are those who believe that some day, Mars will be made habitable in the way they did it in one of those Star Trek movies, but I wouldn't bet the pension fund on it.  If you're going to place bets according to movies, you're probably a lot better off going with the first version of Total Recall, where everything that lives survives under an airtight dome of artificially oxygenated air.  And even then you wouldn't enjoy it because you'd constantly be worrying about some terrorist sabotaging a leak in the system.

Sound like fun to you? Not me.  My heart goes out to those knuckleheads who fall for that whole idea of colonization, because the first five generation of Mars colonists aren't even going to be tourists.  They're going to be construction workers and contractors, just like the ones who don't show up on time to remodel your bathroom.  They'll have two jobs:  Build the machines owned by the corporate sponsors and fix the the machines owned by the corporate sponsors when they break.

Don't get me wrong, I thought landing a moon was a magnificent achievement, possibly the only moment in history when the entire planet really was brought together.  But people forget that before, during and after the moon landing, the Vietnam War continued to rage and thousands of humans went right back to their everyday jobs, carpools and PTA meetings.

Sure, the government will tout how NASA's moon program is responsible for microwave ovens, digital clocks, pocket calculators and Tang® the astronauts' orange drink.  And I suppose there's value in that.  I just don't see how peering through a telescope and finding nothing but rocks is going to gain any of us anything.

Unless, of course, we see someone peering back.

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