Mis­sion to Mars: One stupid leap for mankind

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION - DAVID VON DREHLE david.von­drehle@wash­post.com

Ju­ve­nal, that bit­ing pun­dit of the Ro­man Em­pire, com­plained of weak lead­ers dis­tract­ing the peo­ple with “panem et circenses” — bread and cir­cuses. In our day, it’s moon bases and mis­sions to Mars.

Europe is splin­ter­ing. North Korea has gone full “Dr. Strangelove.” Dis­as­ter in Puerto Rico. Mas­sacre in Las Ve­gas. Crick­ets chirp­ing on Capi­tol Hill, where Repub­li­can prom­ises go to die. With so much to be done and few plans for do­ing it, the peo­ple need to be dis­tracted. So Vice Pres­i­dent Pence was trot­ted out last week to re­vive a long-dor­mant pres­i­den­tial com­mis­sion and get Amer­i­can as­tro­nauts back into space.

Per­haps you thought our as­tro­nauts never left space. Haven’t they been space walk­ing, re­pair­ing tele­scopes, per­form­ing ex­per­i­ments and mak­ing mu­sic videos up there for years? Turns out those mis­sions take place in “low Earth or­bit,” less than 350 miles from home. Mil­lions of kids have ven­tured far­ther to at­tend col­lege than our as­tro­nauts have trav­eled from Earth these past 45 years.

Though Pence’s com­mis­sion is un­likely to tell you, there are very good rea­sons Amer­i­cans, and other hu­mans, abruptly stopped go­ing deep into space. It’s deadly. It’s un­nec­es­sary. And to bor­row from Gertrude Stein, there’s no there there.

Doubt­less, Amer­i­cans could re­turn to the moon, and even stay there for a while. It would cost vast sums, but we have good credit and high tol­er­ance for debt. The ques­tion is why. The moon is still the same dead, dusty desert we left in 1972. Ice-cov­ered Antarc­tica and the Sara­han sands are both far more hos­pitable to hu­man life than the moon.

A moon base makes zero sense on its own terms, so it’s pitched as a tram­po­line to Mars. Face it: The Red Planet has the best PR in the so­lar sys­tem. What Scien­tol­ogy is to creepy movie stars, Mars travel is to swash­buck­ling bil­lion­aires. Elon Musk, Richard Bran­son and Jef­frey P. Bezos (owner of The Post) have all set their sights on the fourth rock from the sun, with Musk say­ing he hopes to die there — “just not on im­pact.”

Boos­t­er­ish sci­en­tists re­port that mid­day tem­per­a­tures may reach a balmy 60-plus de­grees on the Mars ver­sion of St. Tropez, but Musk bet­ter pack a heavy snow­suit to go with his Speedo. Hav­ing vir­tu­ally zero at­mos­phere to hold the warmth, the planet cools off overnight to around 90 de­grees be­low zero at the equa­tor. The av­er­age tem­per­a­ture, ac­cord­ing to NASA, is 81 be­low.

Still, a hu­man trav­eler to Mars should make the most of its air­less monotony, be­cause there is no com­ing back. The long pas­sage through the vac­uum of space will ex­pose as­tro­nauts to in­tense and pro­longed bom­bard­ment by cos­mic rays and unim­peded so­lar ra­di­a­tion — a death sen­tence for which NASA has no so­lu­tion (though sci­en­tists con­tinue to seek one). At the Ho­tel Mars, you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.

What’s more, Mars is a dead end. As fa­tally des­o­late and bru­tal as Mars is, our neigh­bor planet is the most hab­it­able des­ti­na­tion for many, many light years in any di­rec­tion.

Sci­ence fic­tion can be se­duc­tive. Of course we want to boldly go where no one has gone be­fore. But space ex­plo­ration is a job for ro­bots, not hu­mans. Na­ture has adapted us exquisitely and pre­cisely for life in one par­tic­u­lar ecosys­tem in one re­mote cor­ner of an in­com­pre­hen­si­bly vast uni­verse.

But here’s the good news: It’s a re­ally nice ecosys­tem! Earth is blan­keted with a breath­able at­mos­phere, and the grav­ity’s just right to hold us in place with­out crush­ing our bod­ies. There is snow for ski­ing, and there are beaches for tan­ning. Land and seas teem with food — so much that the ever-grow­ing hu­man pop­u­la­tion has never been bet­ter nour­ished than to­day. There are won­drous things to see, such as Yel­low­stone, the Lou­vre and Wil­lie Nel­son.

The vice pres­i­dent touted the com­mer­cial prospects for hu­mans in space, but that, too, is a dis­trac­tion. There is no eco­nomic en­ter­prise (apart from space tourism) that can be done more ef­fi­ciently by hu­mans in space than by space ro­bots or hu­mans on the ground. It’s all pie in the sky.

Other pro­mot­ers of moon bases and Mars colonies are dooms­day the­o­rists, grimly la­bor­ing un­der the be­lief that hu­mans are go­ing to de­stroy the Earth and need to have a lifeboat ready. This is dan­ger­ous think­ing. For all the troubles in our cur­rent home, they are small com­pared with the prob­lems of liv­ing in a ter­rar­ium on a frozen rock un­der skies com­posed of 95 per­cent car­bon diox­ide. If we have money and en­ergy and brain­power enough to build set­tle­ments on dis­tant waste­lands, we are bet­ter off de­ploy­ing those re­sources to pre­serve the boun­ti­ful planet we al­ready have.

The vast and mur­der­ous uni­verse has con­spired to ma­roon the hu­man race — but what a won­der­ful is­land we’re on. Rather than go in search of dust bowls to die in, let us send our robot eyes and ears to ex­plore the life­less seas of space, mar­veling at their find­ings while giv­ing thanks that we’re not with them.


With the space shut­tle Dis­cov­ery as a back­drop, Vice Pres­i­dent Pence speaks in Chan­tilly, Va., last week.

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