I confess I wrote most of this on Sunday several hours before the Curiosity lander either landed successfully on Mars or left an SUV-sized crater. [Update: Success!] Obviously I’m hoping for the former [YAY!], but why all this effort for Mars and not, for example, Venus or Jupiter?
First, let me lay out all those legitimate scientific reasons. Mars is much more like Earth than the other planets in our solar system, and studying Mars can tell us a few new things about the Earth, its climate, and its history. Also, Mars shows signs of having once had liquid water on its surface, and that means there is the possibility that Mars might have once harbored microbial life – and it still might. Finding another sample of life would teach us a lot about the possibilities of life and organic chemistry, even if it’s to teach us that Martian life came from Earth or vice versa.
So yeah, we go to Mars in hopes of learning things to help us on Earth. Yada, yada, yada. It’s all legitimate, and it can probably justify the price tag. But that’s not why I care.
In my lifetime, Mars has gone from being a light in the sky to being a place. As corny as it sounds, it has become the new frontier, that faraway land across the sea, and I feel a definite itch to go see it. What things could I see that no one has seen before? What could I build there? Who else would I meet on such an exciting journey? What mark would I leave on such a world?
Yeah, I know… it’s a lot of romantic claptrap, but that doesn’t mean it’s not real. I don’t know if it’s simply because I’m a lifelong SF geek, or if it’s some deep genetic wanderlust. Either way, it’s a tangible draw, and I find that it ranks high on the scale of things that fulfill my life.
Do I think I’m going? No. I admit I still hold out some hope that I might make it into orbit as a tourist someday, but that’s about it for me personally. However, I do hope to see a manned mission to Mars in my lifetime. It would be even better to see some kind of permanent settlement there, but I don’t see that as a realistic possibility in the next 40-50 years. I’m not saying I’d vote against it – far from it – but I don’t expect to see it.
In the long term, I’d like to think there will be a long term effort to colonize Mars and terraform it. That would teach us a lot about managing a climate – again, useful here on Earth. It would also give our species some survival insurance that the dinosaurs lacked. And finally, I think it would teach us a lot of we’ll need to know if we’re ever going to make the leap past our solar neighborhood.
Specifically, living on Mars would teach us how to keep people alive and healthy for long-duration space flight. It would teach us how to built shelter on inhospitable worlds using local materials. We would learn how to actually terraform instead of merely bandying about the notion that it should be possible. And we’ll also find out just how Earth-like we need to make a planet to successfully life there.
Who knows? Maybe we’ll find out that Mars just isn’t good enough to live on. Maybe it will be too cold. Maybe poor magnetic field will let us fry in solar radiation. Maybe its low gravity will cause us endless health problems. But maybe we can solve those issues.
But in the here and now, I’m looking forward to Curiosity’s mission and exploring Mars vicariously through it.