Just over a week ago, NASA successfully landed a rover on Mars. There’s been a long history of attempting, and failing, to land exploratory vehicles on Mars. A great deal of stuff has crashed and burnt, which isn’t so surprising when you consider that what we’re talking about here is essentially trying to manhandle the world’s clumsiest toy car over a distance of anywhere between 30 million to three hundred and fifty million miles, through an atmospheric window roughly the same distance as it takes to walk from Kings Cross to Westminster, while travelling a few thousand metres per second, before touching the same toy car down on the surface of an unknown planet lightly enough that it doesn’t go ‘thump’. As if that wasn’t bad enough, there’s a light speed delay between Earth and Mars – not a whopping one, but enough to raise your tension – which means whenever you press ‘go’, the universe is going to think about it. Under these circumstances, you gotta trust to machines, cross your fingers and quite possibly, in the most scientific way possible, pray.
With the Olympics in full swing, the news generally didn’t pay much attention to the Mars landings, which is a shame, as they’re an technological triumph and human achievement which arguably over-shadows the ability to run very fast, impressive though that is. If, however, you’re like me, and find yourself getting teary-eyed whenever you see an athlete getting teary-eyed themselves on the Olympic medal podium, then watch a few seconds footage of the NASA team as the latest Mars rover touched down. It’s like the Olympic effect… but fifty times bigger.
Readers of this blog will know how firmly I cheer for the notion of man exploring space. Whenever I say as much, however, I tend to get accusations leveled along the lines of ‘yeah, but one rocket mission could pay for a year of hospitals’ to which I say yes, you’re right. The expense is vast. Then again, the US defence budget in 2009 was about $726 billion, the Beijing Olympics cost $41 billion, $60 billion was spent on Ebay, the cost to renew the UK’s nuclear missile system – Trident – is estimated at about £130 billion, and NASA’s budget in 2009 was $19 billion so before anyone waxes lyrical about the figures involved, let me hasten to say that if I had to chose between manned exploration of the universe, nuclear missiles, or two weeks of very healthy people being very athletic, I’d chose extraterrestrial exploration any day.
It’s not simply a question of clever people cleverly landing something clever on a far-away rock. It’s not just a question of technological endeavour and exploration. The mission to get humans on Mars is about much, much more than flag waving and ego. Certainly, there’s a constant worry that pillock nation states are going to point at a bit of sky and say ‘this bit is China’ or ‘this bit is the USA’ or worst of all ‘this bit is Virgin Media’, god help us, but if we as a species can resist this and say, ‘this bit of sky is for all humanity’ then the project to explore space becomes, for the first time in man’s history, a project for everyone. Scientific exploration is conducted for an entire species, its results are for everyone, its implications are for a whole planet. The question which must be asked is this – humanity, what’s its point? If the purpose of our species is to reproduce and create more of ourselves, then yeap, we’ve got it nailed. Hurrah, humanity and the common cold – we’re on the same page here. If it’s to increase the happiness of future generations then… okay, we’re trying our best, although those future generations are gonna be pretty worried when they’re sharing a planet with twelve billion others of their kin. If it’s to create new ideas, to challenge the boundaries of our own species, to push upwards and beyond to find newer, better ways of living, to explore wonders and see the universe then frankly, there’s only so much a good bit of poetry can do. As a species, we’ve always suffered from parochialism, it’s practically inbuilt into our DNA, and from this has come endless feuding between people of creed, race and nation, as if somehow this flag were better than that. If humanity is to be more than it has been, then our eyes must open and our minds must broaden, and you can’t get a much bigger idea, a much broader scope than the exploration of the solar system.
… respect to NASA.
Now let’s please put an international team down on Mars.