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LHC photo
The particle physics community was able to rally support worldwide for the Large Hadron Collider. Is a similar power of concensus necessary—and possible for human spaceflight? (credit: CERN)

CERN and Mars

Many of the ideas that space advocates dream of usually have one main barrier in common: prohibitive costs. Space ideas from orbital hotels and spaceplanes to colonies on the Moon and Mars require significant investment—in the billion-dollar range—to become reality. I would like to pose a question to the space community made up of scientists, engineers, and enthusiasts across the world: “Can we fund even one of our larger scale ideas here in the economic crisis of 2009?”

CERN is the perfect example of the power of consensus.

I believe we can and that there is evidence for this in the vast particle physics project known as the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN, the European particle physics organization. Read the section of their web site titled “Why fundamental science?” You will find striking similarities in CERN’s justification for “why” it deserves funding with the arguments many space advocates use. One statement in that explanation really stood out to meL “Science needs the space for curiosity and imagination”. Was it really on that basis alone that CERN managed to gain and sustain a multibillion-dollar program over decades? Or was it something else?

My view here is that CERN is the perfect example of the power of consensus. When a majority of the world’s particle physicists joined together and lobbied their respective governments, it led to the funding of a project described on the CERN website as “remote from everyday life and unlikely to bring immediate practical applications”. So strong was the consensus among these scientists (much like the area of global warming today) that governments could not ignore it. As an average non-scientific member of the public, I remember the reaction from others around me when the news came of CERN firing up the LHC in late 2008 as one of confusion and questioning the relevance of such a project. Obviously that meant little to the scientists or governments involved.

There are many other areas of human curiosity and imagination which demand similar vast funding levels but most fail to raise even one percent of what they need to develop. The biggest problem they face, especially in the area of space science, is a lack of consensus on the direction and purpose of space exploration, and governments are aware of this. While we could justify a human mission to Mars, for example, on the same basis as CERN, and we could justify spending billions on other areas of human curiosity, the fact remains that governments and investors are not interested in space to the degree needed for funding our own “very large projects”.

And it certainly doesn’t help our cause when so many in the space community remain so divided about our direction. There are so many ideas out there now, from space tourism to Moon bases and Mars exploration, all with their own supporters but lacking the consensus CERN was able to draw from. The search for life on Mars (or elsewhere in space) has often been promoted as “the” reason for why we should go, and that reason alone is very similar to CERN’s own “science needs the space for curiosity and imagination” reason. The drive to explore and colonize space comes from the same justification as CERN and is equally deserving of funding for the same reason. This is what we need to realize. It has been said that if we find life out there it will have a “profound impact” on our own lives and understanding of the universe and of course the journey alone leads to many new discoveries.

Another quote from CERN on why they are worthy of funding, from its director-general, Robert Aymar:

Why should the EIB [European Investment Bank] consider the world’s largest fundamental physics project to be a worthy investment? I believe the reason is that fundamental science paves the way to future innovation.

Fundamental research has the power to make people dream, and it attracts the innovators of the future into science. Without the excitement provided by research and discovery at the frontiers of knowledge, the pool of scientists would undoubtedly be smaller.

Space advocates have (rightly) used the exact same argument about pushing the frontiers or knowledge, exciting the next generations into the sciences, and “making people dream”. The Apollo missions of the past have been shown to have inspired many young people into technical fields leading to many of the innovations and improvements we see today. This can happen again, and in fact the one thing space science has over CERN is that it simply looks better to the average public. It’s something they can readily understand in the here and now.

So why do we lack funding on so many fronts with space? One only has to look at the myriad of ultra-small space groups, political agendas of space agencies and egocentric individuals within our sector to understand why. All of us are pulling in a million different directions when we can least afford it. I am in no way saying one idea is better or worse than any other, but what we need right now is first consensus and then funding for at least one large project. Once we have investment flowing again we can begin to earnestly explore all of the other ideas we have.

So why do we lack funding on so many fronts with space? One only has to look at the myriad of ultra-small space groups, political agendas of space agencies and egocentric individuals within our sector to understand why.

That is why I choose to focus on Mars. It seems that Mars is something scientists are interested in with a continual stream of robotic explorers visiting our red neighbor over the last decade. To the general public, or the few among them who bother to think about it, we have already been to the Moon and thus the next step is Mars. It is a project that makes sense as much as any science project can make sense, and something we can build momentum from. I agree that we need cheaper rockets and a viable solar system economy, but until we get a much larger slice of general funding for the development of these areas we will continue to struggle. As a single large project a human mission to Mars makes sense. It can lead to greatly increased investment in the entire space sector and open the floodgates for a new era where similar-sized projects successfully gain funding. If CERN can do it, so can we. That’s the point. But whether it’s this idea or some other idea in space, without consensus we will get nowhere.


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