Now vs. later: Conflicting views of the path to Mars
by Bryant Mishima-Baker
|Should we move carefully and steadily beyond our terrestrial home? Or do we require a sudden push out into the universe? How do we approach a first human flight to Mars?|
It starts on a sweltering summer day. Where I come from, by this point in the year the days would have begun to shorten and the leaves would be falling all around, but that’s not what it’s like in Texas. A crowd of interested students, professors, and officials had gathered together to listen to what would become a battle cry for the space community. Can you picture it in your mind?
At the time the US was languishing in a losing battle in space. The USSR had already launched satellites and people into space before the US knew what was happening. And in 1961 President John F. Kennedy took office in part on a “You’re wasting too much money” platform. Truly a reluctant space enthusiast.
Kennedy nevertheless took the stage and successfully called the whole country to action in achieving the seemingly impossible goal of reaching the Moon and becoming the first (and still only) nation in history to set foot on an extraterrestrial body. He did this by calling for action to take place not soon, but now.
Currently, we are facing a similar question in our quest to expand into the universe. Should we move carefully and steadily beyond our terrestrial home? Or do we require a sudden push out into the universe? How do we approach a first human flight to Mars?
Recordings of his now historic speech ooze with the sweat that seemed to be pouring not just from the speaker but also from the crowd. It had been over a year since Kennedy had approached Congress to do exactly what he had said he would never do, pour an exorbitant amount of money into NASA and the US efforts in outer space. Nearby, construction was ongoing on the Manned Spacecraft Center, now known as the Johnson Space Center. Tensions were high for all with clear memories of the embarrassment of the Bay of Pigs, and the Cuban Missile Crisis almost exactly a month away. But spectator hand-fans beat with fervor in anticipation for what the president would say.
His words still speak to us today. “[We] choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” This culmination of words threw support behind the vision of American boots on the Moon in such an avalanching way that the impossible happened! We accomplished less than a decade later what at the time existed nowhere outside of science fiction. Do we as a people, as a human species even, truly comprehend just how incredible that is?
The success of the American space program in the 1960s did not come out of nowhere any more than most other marvels of technological or cultural significance. But like most amazing shifts in norm, this one required a push in the right direction. As described by Malcolm Gladwell in his book The Tipping Point, “We need to prepare ourselves for the possibility that sometimes big changes follow from small events, and that sometimes these changes can happen very quickly.”
It is to that end that I would like to compare two approach to Mars and the current space industry that have recently come to the forefront of the news: those of President Barack Obama and Elon Musk.
On October 11, CNN published an op-ed by President Obama in which he outlined a romantic vision of hoisting his grandchildren on his shoulders and looking to the stars, knowing that explorers have travelled out into the cosmos, not to visit, but to stay. Central to this vision was an emphasis on the choices that were being made today. At the pinnacle of his thoughts was the “clear goal” of sending humans to Mars by the late 2030s. This powerful thought of dedicating ourselves to the idea of sending people to Mars in the next twenty years or so is a truly inspiring call to those listening! And that call reverberated across conventional and social media for days afterwards.
|It was not just inspiration that happened that day in 1962, it was an immediate call to adhere to technical desperation.|
Contrast this with another speech given just two weeks earlier. Elon Musk presented his plan to a live audience on September 27 at the International Astronautical Congress in Mexico (see “Elon Musk’s road to Mars”, The Space Review, October 3, 2016). Musk unveiled the designs for SpaceX’s Interplanetary Transport System (ITS) and dedicated the company to begin flights to Mars on precursor Red Dragon missions as early as 2018. Musk later revealed that tests on the actual hardware that would be performing the task of delivering people to Mars were proceeding and were looking “promising.” Musk described the design and process of actually doing the traveling to Mars as “really fun,” stating, “You’ll have a great time.” Hardly stirring oratory. But is there something hidden under the surface?
In both instances, my own first impression was to be excited at the amazing things that were going to be done in the near future. But something bothered me about how I felt about President Obama’s plan. It reminded me all too much of a day I still remember as a child.
In January of 2004, I remember feeling another spring of excitement and awe at what the future would hold when my mother pointed out a news heading that flashed across the screen of our living room television set. Still not enraptured by the evening news, I was not terribly excited about what my mother had to show me until I understood the subject: President Bush was announcing plans for going to Mars. And what’s more, he announced we would be doing it… wait for it… as early as 2030. I recall vividly the rush of excitement knowing that I would be around to see mankind set foot on Mars! I could hardly believe my ears!
For weeks my eyes searched for the great changes that I anticipated would be permeating society. I had pictured buildings being constructed, the national conversation shifting towards space exploration as I always had imagined had happened in the ’60s. And day after day, I was disappointed at seeing… nothing.
Now we’re being told, “we meant the late 2030s,” about ten years later than we thought ten years ago. Have things become ten years more difficult? Or is the prospect of a lofty inspiring goal more than 25 years into the future a relatively safe bet to make? I suspect that it is probably the latter.
Don’t get me wrong, I am all for inspiration. Words and ideas do matter! It was words that tipped the process of achieving the impossible in 1962. Hot sweaty drops of inspiration dripped out of the president on that day and seeded the desire to accomplish. But is that all that happened?
I would argue that the answer is, no. It was not just inspiration that happened that day in 1962, it was an immediate call to adhere to technical desperation. It was a sudden and urgent push to set aside caution and embrace discovery that made our collective hearts race and adopt the mantra of discovery.
|Imagine what it would be like if we as a society decided that the “future” is no longer a far-distant anomaly to be accomplished by whoever comes next. Imagine if we started taking responsibility for the need to enter and settle space now.|
President Obama used words of inspiration, but Musk was inspirational. Musk has never come across to me as being particularly eloquent or rhetorical. But the man is an inspiration! Essentially, what Musk’s announcement last month comes down to is a singular message: it is a finger in the face of society and the father-like admonition of “No, not later, now!”
I think there is room for a business and technical discussion of the pros and cons of a quick approach to Mars versus a slow and careful approach. At the very least, the concerns of monetary and material waste, and the need for economic benefit, cannot be ignored. There is not a single person I know that would advocate for a blind approach to space travel. But enough is enough.
Imagine a great leap forward! Imagine what it would be like if we as a society decided that the “future” is no longer a far-distant anomaly to be accomplished by whoever comes next. Imagine if we started taking responsibility for the need to enter and settle space now. What a difference! That is where the rhetoric of recent presidents has failed. Since Kennedy’s speech that day in 1962, plenty of inspirational words have been shared. Plenty of inspirational thoughts have been given. But we have lacked an inspirational call to immediate action.
We are capable of more than we give ourselves credit for. We went from zero to Moon in ten years! We are capable of more than having a plan to discuss a possible outline for eventual decision making; the kind of perpetual seeming loop that we have found ourselves for the last 40 years. We can do it, and we will. It is only a matter of who will be at the forefront. For the moment, it looks like it will be entrepreneurs like Elon Musk, not the heads of states. But what if both government and private industry united on the goal of immediate action? What if “in 20 years” became “this year?” Wouldn’t that be a good story?