First part of this blog entry focused on the sentiments of space travel, the history of space race, and the implications of journey to Mars. This entry will focus on the current greatest barriers of journey to Mars/beyond and the present position of organizations like NASA. Next week will be on Mars mission itself and the long term vision of space beyond Mars. Initially, there were going to be 2 entries, but to keep the entries shorter & accessible, I’m splitting this into a 3rd entry.
Just a quick revisit to space race – Without the space race, no human would have landed on the moon perhaps to this day. We must thank the space race for pushing us forward into the history books. Yes, there were scary ulterior dark motives behind what led up to the moon landings as I touched on in part 1-World War 2, mass killings through Nazi rockets, Cold War, politics, military complex, risk of third world war, paranoia-, but it is not my intention to dwell on them for long though.
We humans landed on the moon and pushed science forward or as Neil Armstrong would say “…one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” We are not finished; we can never be finished. For another leap forward, our next target is Mars.
Unfortunately, it is not without its immense challenges leading up to such a mission. I attempt to draw a picture of these challenges through arguments and counter-arguments of the 3 biggest challenges (in my view anyways). The more we think about these challenges, the farther and farther away Mars seems to get.
It is easy to say “lets go to Mars,” but there are so many other considerations before we can be ready for that endeavor.
If you polled people asking what they think the barriers are for journey to Mars, you might hear things like we don’t yet have the technological capability or the scientific research. Many think the biggest barriers are technology, but it is not true. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel from the previous moon landings. Laws of physics have not changed since the 70s.
“We already have the skills and technology needed to take people to Mars, we just need to build it,” says astro-geologist Jonathan Clarke from the Mars Society of Australia (abc, 2015).
So what exactly are these barriers if not technological or scientific or engineering? Most of these barriers are more so sociological, economic driven, and political.
How can you realistically convince an entire nation to spend two hundred billion dollars to get perhaps 5 humans on mars for one year? How can you realistically tell people fighting for other causes such as poverty, disease, energy crisis, broken infrastructure that we care more about searching other planets to quench our thirst for knowledge & acquire better understanding of the cosmos than their causes? Truth is poverty, starvation, disease, energy all matter. Education is also problematic with too many simply lacking basic science understanding so how do I convince those folks to care about what we do out there in space when they may not have basic understanding down here of how science works? Many people want education, but they may lack the resources to acquire an education.
Those are all socioeconomic challenges that I don’t have the right answers to. Even if I had a well-thought out counter-argument to each of those issues, how can I ethically ask a person living in a broken down house working minimum wage and just barely able to feed their kids that I want his/her voting support in funding $200 billion on getting scientists to Mars? That person barely has time to think about how they will provide food/roof over their kids tomorrow morning – how many in that situation will be thinking forward 10-20-50 years down the road? Survival instinct in the present bumps everything and rightfully so. Trip to Mars is not going to get a roof over their heads or put food on their plate. Majority of humanity is in such dire situations (estimated 80% of all humans globally live in extreme poverty).
Lets say I can convince people through an explanation like this.. Sure, exploration may be a part of the journey but there is something even bigger at stake: advancing spacefaring technology so we could advance further as a civilization and not rely entirely on what earth has to provide. Who knows how long the earth will be here intact? All it takes is 1 man-made mistake or something natural and we are in massive trouble as a species. It could be world war 3, nuclear winter, widespread disease, asteroid, comet, massive solar flares, supervolcano explosion, virus, climate change, global bio-warfare, nuclear holocaust leading to annihilation through nuclear war, nearby supernova–estimated supernova within 100 light-years could be devastation to life on Earth–, out-of-control overpopulation, or any number of other things I may have overlooked.
None on that list are far-fetched possibilities so we want to open up OUR possibilities by dispersing stations throughout the solar system and ultimately figure out ways to possibly setup stations on other planets, such as Mars, to improve our survival chances greatly. We are not meant to be born on this planet and go extinct on this planet. We are very much vulnerable so lets improve our chances as a whole!
As powerful as that argument may be, a person can simply ask: “Will that feed my starving children? No? Okay, step aside. I need to survive.” Survival always wins, and nobody in that desperate situation can think about tomorrow with rationality. Only the next meal. That is majority of humanity and the socioeconomic issue in a nutshell. It has a big impact on funding as people expect direct tangible benefits, but realistically few types of research work in that aspect.
Worry about Today!
Another argument I have heard is that tomorrow doesn’t matter and to worry about today only as we individually won’t be around for very long. I have seen this argument being applied to science and technology of tomorrow quite a few times. Essentially, if we won’t be around in 100 years, why bother thinking 100 years down the road? Just let future generations worry about themselves and their own era. This has become a mindset in many people.
I believe that argument is inherently flawed and selfish way of thinking because we don’t innovate or do something thought to be impossible just for today and for ourselves only. Einstein didn’t do physics just for his time, but he wanted to improve on what the belief was before he came along. Napoleon didn’t just invade Russia and rest of Europe just for his era, but he wanted to do what was thought impossible. Alexander The Great didn’t attempt to conquer the world for his time, but he wanted to be thought of as a god long after he was dead. Columbus didn’t sail West to find India for fun & giggles for his era, but he wanted respect for accomplishing a great impossible feat. Columbus claiming to sail west to reach Asia was thought to be impossible because remember, they thought Earth was flat in 1480 so based on that logic, you would fall off if you went too far West. Columbus defied logic and the common sense of that era.
You innovate and come up with new ideas to change what was and to push the boundaries, to possibly improve the world long after you’re gone. Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla will be known 25,000 years from now based on their astonishing ideas and impacts to engineering.
Trip to Mars wouldn’t be just for the humans alive today, but it would have an impact on humanity many centuries down the road, long after today’s newborn babies have all long passed away as grandparents in their 90’s.
We are here today because of those before us that made it possible for us. Folks like Plato, Newton, Leonardo da Vinci, Nikola Tesla, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, many others from other parts of the world.. where would we be if they were only concerned with making their today’s better without trying to improve status quo?
True that we live in the present, but tomorrow absolutely matters because even if we aren’t around, our future generation of humans will be. Anything otherwise is complacency and accepting mediocrity, which is something we cannot do if we wish to be around for a very long time (maybe hundreds of millions of years?). From the beginning, we humans have surmounted the greatest obstacles to reach the point we are at. This is not the time to turn around on what has kept our ancestors alive through the most vulnerable of times throughout human history. We are still very much vulnerable and cannot give up on our future now. Giving up now is as good as signing our own death certificates.
The biggest obstacle is arguably politics. Politicians are not usually worried about tomorrow. They could careless what happens after they’re out of office. Their decisions tend to only target and focus on the period they are in office, even if those very decisions could have disastrous unintended consequences after their term is up. This leads to a lack of long-term vision as we currently see with NASA. It is the same way almost everywhere.
Congress/senate, a non-scientific entity, controls how NASA, a scientific entity, spends the allotted money by choosing the programs Congress wants. They have the power to cut certain research areas and focus on other areas. Some oversight by Senate is fine to ensure money is not being wasted, but micro-managing to the degree where they are practically choosing to allot unnecessary money to a rocket rather than the spacecraft capsule is too far. It’s not for Senate to decide but the engineers and scientists! There is no long-term vision beyond 5-6 years because if there was, we would not be seeing decisions like these being made, where politicians have their hands around the throats of science.
Perhaps the only thing that can push congress/senate to focus more on science and technology is the word ‘national security’. When the Cold War was brewing, innovation was given free reigns and big money to innovate due to paranoia and nationalism to outdo the Soviets.
The moment Cold War ended, people began to become complacent once national security justification suddenly evaporated. Funds started to disappear from things like space program overnight as they pulled the rug from underneath. Astrophysicist Neil degrasse Tyson often mentions it.
Sometimes, I wonder if a new opponent like the Soviets would jumpstart innovation. As scary as the Cold War was, much innovation came out of it.
What is curious is people tend to pay most attention when fear is added into the mix, which is worrisome. Very few do things out of pure curiosity or desire to learn/innovate. Politicians usually know that very well and often use fear to their advantage — for instance, every time Trump gives a speech, he always brings up some new fear, whether it is the Mexicans or Chinese or Russians or Muslims or poor people or women or the homeless. He understands the fear factor and exploits it every chance he gets, which somehow gets him more votes. In the 50s, it was McCarthyism where it was the fear of the communist Soviets taking over America. Joe McCarthy drew on the Soviet fear to the point where he had neighbors turning on neighbors, friends turning on friends, family on family, etc. That was his way of gaining power, but it didn’t last once people realized his true motives.
Fear drives politics, and since Soviet Union fell, the fear of somebody else winning space race is gone. If China were to create a plan tomorrow to get humans on Mars in 15 years, America would quickly put together a plan to get humans on mars in next 10 years to beat China. People only care when they feel threatened that someone else will beat them to the chase. The end-result is politics (indirectly fear) ends up driving innovation and vision rather than the other way around. Unfortunately, that is just how things are.
NASA has historically stayed away from politics because they don’t want to help contribute to dividing people apart. NASA’s job is to get science/engineering data out there through research, help foster education, and collect knowledge to expand understanding of the cosmos. If they themselves became involved in endless political battles, it would hinder their mission and risk losing public support/funds.
These are the 3 greatest issues that limit space research and space exploration. Initially, I wanted to take this entry into advances of NASA and space tech, but that’s for next entry.
Next time, I will focus on the vision of space and conclude this train of thoughts on Mars.